Over the past month, former chief scientist Professor Sir David King and Sainsbury chief executive Justin King have both suggested that voluntary measures might not be enough.
Justin King remarked that issues such as packaging waste, for example, require more direct intervention. Giving the British Retail Consortium (BRC) annual retail lecture in London, he said voluntary action by industry was clearly preferable to legislation.
However, many firms in the food sector had been slow to sign up to the government's Public Health Responsibility Deal, which King said was "regrettable". "It has largely been signed by the usual suspects, but it is not yet universal," he said. Some thought it was a means of government taking a back seat on investment for the National Health Service.
Asda, Sainsbury, Morrisons and Tesco have all signed up to the Deal. While plant bread producer Allied Bakeries has also signed up, Federation of Bakers' president and chief executive of Allied Bakeries, Mark Fairweather said: "By 2010, we had reduced salt in bread by 37%. We will continue to endeavour to reduce salt even further ... Reducing salt in bread is not an easy process, salt has a vital role to play in the formation of dough and the characteristics of the final product." Cutting it could reduce shelf-life through increased "staling", he warned.
At the Institute of Food Science & Technology's annual lecture, Sir David King argued that regulation was necessary to encourage healthier lifestyles. "I don't think governments can stand back," he said. "We need to, for example, be looking at the availability of sports fields in all of our schools. We need to look at the obligations around private transport usage. If we want to manage congestion and better living in our cities, and if we want to manage obesity we need to find ways of encouraging pedestrian ways and cycleways."
In his BRC lecture, Justin King said: "Responsibility Deals are not always proportionate. ... But they do create a level playing field and subject everyone to the same public scrutiny so government can focus on the rogues."
The crackdown on packaging waste was a classic example of where the industry had worked together, but needed government help. "There's a clear level of confusion," he said. "There are 400 local government authorities and 90100 different recycling schemes. We, as a society, are simply not recycling enough."
The government needed to take a hands-on approach to ensure facilities and communication adequately served consumers.
l See article p20.