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Public health role for food industry

By Rick Pendrous, 13-Feb-2012

Related topics: Food Safety, Healthy foods, Fats & oils

The food industry must get much more closely involved in public health issues if we are to deal with the problems of obesity the nation faces, the co-chair of the government’s food Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) Network has argued.

Dr Susan Jebb, who is also head of diet and population health at the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Unit, said that business involvement with the PHRD would need to evolve from being “transactional to transformational”.

Speaking at a seminar on obesity last week, organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum, Jebb said: “The challenge going forward would be to develop the concept of the PHRD from a relatively transactional relationship in which business offers to act and government offers to limit its use of regulation to a much more transformational relationship where public health gets to the very heart of business and where public health and economic growth become absolutely synonymous.”

Big obstacles

Jebb defended the achievements of the PHRD to date, but accepted that big obstacles lay ahead: “Finding a way of changing the environment is going to be absolutely crucial to helping individuals to enact the healthier choices that so much of health promotion and education has gone into trying to inform them about.”

The PHRD is the brainchild of health secretary Andrew Lansley who is currently under intense pressure from the medical profession and opposition politicians to abandon his proposed reforms to the NHS. Last year he announced that the PHRD would be refocused on reducing levels of obesity and the calorie intake of the population in England.

From 2013, responsibility for public health is being devolved to local authorities. But some commentators have questioned the ability of local authorities to work with the food industry in any meaningful way to bring about the changes needed.

The PHRD’s focus on calorie intake reduction has also been questioned by leading nutritionists. But, while its use of voluntary targets set with industry has been criticised by some non-governmental organisations, other experts and industry commentators have argued that this approach has already proved far more successful than regulation and the use of fiscal measures such as fat taxes.

Calorie reduction

The PHRD high-level steering group also met last week to review progress on the initiative. Jebb said she hoped the group would pledge to support Lansley’s call on calorie reduction to reduce levels of obesity.

However, Baroness Neuberger, chair of a House of Lords Science and Technology sub-committee looking into Lansley’s “nudge” approach in dealing with the problems of obesity, said: “The jury is still out on the Responsibility Deal.”

Paul Gately, professor of exercise and obesity at Leeds Metropolitan University said: “For someone with a body mass index of over 40, 100 calorie a day deficit induced by the Responsibility Deal will not have the desired impact in terms of health benefit that we want to see.”