Mounting calls for Britain's food and drink manufacturers to be more closely regulated to cap the levels of salt, fat and sugar in their products are likely to lead to a government consultation to delay making any difficult decisions before the next general election, according to a legal expert.
Dominic Watkins, a senior associate in the food sector group of legal firm DWF, said that while the government recognised there was no easy solution to the UK's obesity epidemic, a consultation on the impact of legislation might allow interested parties to air their views.
He doubted that regulation or taxation would work, but believed the government would be forced to consult as a means of relieving the increasing pressure.
'Appear to be taking action'
Watkins said: "I suspect there will be a consultation on whether they should regulate and what it should look like in the run-up to the next parliament." It would give the government some breathing space. "They appear to be taking action, but, on the other hand, it doesn't commit them to anything."
The news followed health minister Anna Soubry's announcement that government reserved the right to legislate if voluntary measures failed to work. She was speaking at a meeting organised by the Food and Drink Federation last month to review progress on the Public health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) covering reformulation of 'healthier' foods.
Soubry was speaking as more health campaigners and opposition politicians called for regulation and taxes on 'unhealthy' primarily processed foods.
Even Dr Susan Jebb, chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network, accepted that the PHRD was only one tool in the armoury of approaches needed and conceded that legislation might be necessary.
"We have to come to a collective view about what is success [of the PHRD]," said Jebb. "I don't think anyone should think the PHRD is the whole of food policy, it isn't, it's only one part and it's about industry engagement and so I would never rule out that there may be some specific incidences where you want to introduce other policies regulatory or otherwise to deal with a particular issue."
Following the meeting, Tam Fry, honorary chairman of the Child Growth Foundation and honorary spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, said he thought the tipping point at which legislation was necessary to regulate Britain's food industry had already passed.
"The rules of the 'carrot and stick' game are that, when industry didn't fulfil its pledge to reformulate its salt levels by 15% on 2010 figures by the end of 2012, [health secretary] Jeremy Hunt should have thwacked all firms still lacing their products with high salt levels, 'pour encourager les autres'," said Fry.
"Industry has been 'getting there' [on healthy reformulation] for at least 1013 years and government has done everything not to wield the stick." Without tougher action, Fry argued that obesity, particularly childhood, would continue.
Fry predicted that President Obama was likely to take tougher regulatory action to address the obesity problem in the US.