Tougher regulation of food industry could be on way

By Rick Pendrous contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food manufacture group, Food industry, Food, Nutrition

Further legislation to curb sales of food and drink to children was predicted by Tam Fry
Further legislation to curb sales of food and drink to children was predicted by Tam Fry
Britain’s food industry is likely to face increasing political scrutiny and further calls for greater regulation over the coming year, according to leading food industry figures canvassed by this website.

Following the horsemeat contamination scandals of last year and continuing concern over the problems of consumer health and obesity, battle lines are likely to be drawn over the coming months between lobbyists calling for tougher regulation of the food supply chain and others who believe voluntary measures – such as the reformulation of foods under the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal – are more effective.

Navigating new regulations

To make life even more complicated, the food industry will also have to navigate through a whole tranche of new regulation that starts coming into effect this year under the Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIR) and the impact of that already in place in the form of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR).

“I am sure that most large manufacturers will manage the​ introduction [of the FIR] well but I do feel for the small and micro businesses ​[that] do not necessarily have the resource or expertise to interpret and implement the changes,” ​said Jon Poole​, ceo of the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST). “Of course, there is then the issue of the consumer – has anyone thought to train the general public about how to interpret the new labelling?”

Poole added that when Professor Chris Elliott’s full report into last year’s ‘horsegate’ scandal is published in the spring “we can expect the implications from this report to start to make an impact”​. 

Poole said: “What structural changes will we see in terms of the Food Standards Agency?”​ He also questioned how the call to bring together public sector analytical laboratories would play out, together with the move to more unannounced audits of food operations.

The Food Manufacture Group is staging a free, one-hour webinar on the FIR – to be broadcast on Thursday, February 20. Find out more here​.

Groceries Code Adjudicator

Following the publication of guidance on the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA), Food and Drink Federation director Melanie Leech​ said the trading rule book ​better known as the Groceries Code of Practice – “will at last be accompanied by a referee”.

Leech said: “Adjudicator Christine Tacon, already well known to retailers’ Code Compliance Officers, is already vigilant in searching out Code transgressions and will no doubt be seeking to find and understand the market’s hotspots as soon as possible.”

She added: “Nearly a year on from the discovery of horsemeat in products labelled as beef, industry and government alike will be looking at how authenticity can be protected and how supply chains can be made more resilient.

“Professor Chris Elliott’s recent interim recommendations​ provide us with a solid platform from which to build a joint strategy with government and enforcement bodies to combat food fraud although the bigger task may be to explain to our customers the what, when, where and how of the measures we’ve put in place to get ahead of the fraudsters.”

Iain Ferguson​, lead non-executive director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and former ceo of Tate & Lyle said that “if developed sensibly”​, Elliott’s recommendations should be welcomed by all responsible operators.

Ferguson added: “We now have a Groceries Code Adjudicator and 2014 is the year when we are likely to see her make her first adjudication. It will be fascinating to see which supplier decides to take a customer into the adjudication process and we will learn much about the real effectiveness of this new approach from her judgement and her ability to reach workable outcomes.”

Curbing sales of ‘junk food’

Tam Fry, honorary chairman of the Child Growth Foundation and spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, expected to see further legislation soon to curb sales of food and drink to children, which many feel have contributed to the UK’s obesity epidemic.

Fry claimed that certain retail bosses were now supporting legislation in some form and had called on health secretary Jeremy Hunt to “level the playing field”​ between supermarkets and foodservice outlets on the sale of ‘junk food’.

“[The] move comes amid government pressure on supermarkets to cut down on the so-called ‘guilt lanes’ where indulgence foods such as sweets and fizzy drinks are displayed beside checkouts,” ​said Fry. 

“The minister with the job of driving this through is predicted to be Jane Ellison who, when appointed to her public health job in the autumn, disagreed with her predecessor’s view that check-outs were ‘off limits’ for government. Coming down hard on supermarkets may also score brownie points for David Cameron with mums who, it is said, are plagued by their kids pestering them for the goods on display.”

Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation

British Nutrition Foundation director general Professor Judy Buttriss believed the NHCR would constrain the types of claims that food businesses could make. Buttriss argued that the NHCR, together with the implications of the FIR, would make it more difficult than in the past to promote the ‘benefits’ of some food components, in particular fibre.

“On the other hand, consumers may benefit from the more uniform FoP​ [front-of-pack nutrition] labelling that most retailers and some manufacturers have pledged to adopt, though of course it’s use is voluntary,” said Buttriss. 

“Apparently C4Life​ [the government’s consumer lifestyle campaign] will include a focus on FoP in January but time will tell whether it is sufficient to meet consumer needs, ie enable them to make the hoped for behaviour changes that lie behind the FoP scheme.”

Reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy would have an impact on many farmers in 2014, said Caroline Drummond, ceo of Leaf (Linking Environment & Farming).

She added: “The food priorities will no doubt include authenticity, ethics, education and a stronger discussion around food’s place in the health and wellbeing debate.”

Watch out for more views from leading industry figures on what the New Year is likely to hold for food and drink manufacturers tomorrow (January 3).

Meanwhile, the Food Manufacture Group has teamed up with law firm DWF to stage a free, one-hour webinar on the FIR to take place on Thursday February 20. More details of the event – which will feature Premier Foods – are available here​. To reserve your free place, email zvpunry.fgbarf@jeoz.pbz​.

Read why politicians are likely to focus on the food industry in 2014 in the second part of our survey​ of key food industry opinion formers.

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