Tough new rules regulating food manufacturers’ use of fat, sugar and salt – initially in children’s food – will be introduced if Labour wins the next general election.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham pledged to introduce the new rules on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions programme on Friday January 17. “There has to be a change in food policy in this country. It is very much on my agenda to change that, as the next health secretary,” he said.
The last Labour government should have been “tougher” in regulating the food and drink industry and voluntary measures to curb sugar, fat and salt in foods had not worked, he added. The Public Health Responsibility Deal was introduced to encourage food and drink manufacturers to help improve the nation’s diet on a voluntary basis.
Successive government health ministers have claimed that voluntary, not mandatory, controls were effective in improving the nation’s diet.
‘Voluntary approach is not working’
But Burnham said: “The voluntary approach is not working. There is a case for maximum levels of fat, sugar and salt in children’s food because the state has a different responsibility to children [than adults]. So, I would start with food marketed directly at children.”
Burnham stressed that he did not want to ban such foods completely – despite, he said, being known as “the Frosty killer”. Instead, he suggested bringing the levels of fat, sugar and salt down to what he deemed more acceptable levels.
Consumers were unaware of the precise constituents of formulated food products, he added.
Christine Tacon, the groceries code adjudicator, told the audience that food manufacturers had a propensity to put a disproportionately large amount of cheap ingredients – such as sugar, water and flour – in their products. The results was that people eat more of them that they realised.
Tacon said the prospect of regulation should be used to persuade food and drink manufacturers to change their formulations more quickly than they had in the past. “There is the voluntary initiative,” she said. “I’d say you have got to do it more quickly. Just like my job of adjudicator – it’s the threat of what you will do that moves things on.”
‘The threat of what you will do that moves things on”
Andrew Mitchell, former government chief whip, and Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, preferred to avoid statutory controls on food ingredients. “I tend towards voluntary initiatives and education,” he told the programme.
Mitchell was making one of his first media appearances since becoming involved in the so-called Plebgate scandal.
The speakers were responding to a question from audience member, dentist Joyce Glandford, who worried about “the onslaught of sugar on children’s teeth”.
Earlier this month, food and drink industry leaders told FoodManufacture.co.uk they expected politicians to focus on the sector this year, in advance of the 2015 general election.
Meanwhile, the National Obesity Forum (NOF) told a BBC Radio 4 programme last week that its controversial report The State of the Nation’s Waistline was based on anecdotal rather than scientific research. The NOF had also exaggerated the scale of Britain’s obesity crisis, its spokesman admitted.