Speaking at a conference on obesity policy in London yesterday [February 7], Sue Davies, chief policy adviser for consumer watchdog Which?, criticised manufacturers for not taking as much action as retailers have done to make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices in the food and drink they purchase.
“There had been progress made by some companies, but overall it is quite a mixed picture,” said Davies. “Generally they haven’t been taking as much action as the retailers, particularly on issues such as front-of-pack nutrition labelling.”
Hybrid nutrition labelling
Davies referred to “exciting” recent developments, with retailers now all committed to putting traffic light labels on front-of-pack along with essential guideline daily amounts (GDAs) in a hybrid form of labelling.
“Unfortunately, we are still waiting to hear from the manufacturers. Other than those that were a long time ago committed to traffic lights – such as McCain, Bernard Matthews – we haven’t seen anything from the manufacturers,” said Davies.
“The key issue is that criteria for the traffic light labelling scheme continues to be robust and we have been happy with the scheme that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) developed. The worst thing would be if that starts to get weakened and undermined in order to try to get more food companies to come on board.”
Devil is in the detail
In response, Terry Jones, communications director for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said: “On front-of-pack, FDF members want to continue to play a leading role in the UK across the range of public health factors.
“If, as seems clear, the UK is moving toward a hybrid front-of-pack scheme with widespread take-up, then that is something that companies will have to take very seriously and will look at very hard. But the devil is in the detail and there is still a lot for us to see in the hybrid scheme.”
Jones added that it was also important to recognise the different problems that manufacturers, which serve markets across Europe and beyond, face in adopting the scheme, compared with retailers, which primarily operate in the UK. “So there is a different range of decision makers and decisions to consider,” he added.
At the conference, organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum, Davies also reported on recent Which? research on nutrition issues and action that consumers would like to see from government and the food industry to help them make healthier food choices. Consumers rated reformulation, marketing, consistent labelling and issues around price and the role of special offers, as their priorities for action.
Public Health Responsibility Deal
In looking at what the industry had done in terms of reformulation to reduce levels of salt, fat and sugar in food and drink, Davies said it was not clear how much had been achieved as a direct result of the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD).
“Given the rates of obesity, the pace of change needs to dramatically increase and there needs to be much more direction from government in order to ensure that the actions that are necessary take place,” she added.
Meanwhile, last month during a webinar organised by FoodManufacture.co.uk, Davies urged food manufacturers to be more open with the public about the latest scientific and technical innovations.
Speaking at the same webinar, Dr Andrew Wadge FSA chief scientist, underlined the safety of horse meat.