Department of Health defends food industry meetings

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food industry Nutrition

Tackling obesity requires discussion with food and drink industry leaders, said a senior Department of Health official
Tackling obesity requires discussion with food and drink industry leaders, said a senior Department of Health official
A senior Department of Health (DH) official has defended the large number of meetings he has held with food and drink companies, as part of the government strategy to stem what health professionals describe as the growing “crisis” of obesity in parts of the UK.

Richard Cienciala, deputy director in the DH’s Obesity & Food Policy Branch, told a seminar today (February 12) in London on tackling obesity, organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum, that engagement with all stakeholders – particularly those in the food industry – was essential if the problem was to be addressed.

“It is one thing to say that business has a key role to play. It is another thing to realise that,”​ said Cienciala. “The​ [Public Health] Responsibility Deal ​[PHRD] has been important, partly in the things it has achieved but also in the way it has provided a vehicle for industry to come together with the public health community, with NGOs ​[non-government organisations]; with those passionately interested in the subject and to find common purpose.”

‘Common purpose’

He noted that progress would take time. “It is not achieved without a huge amount of effort and meetings​ [with the industry] … The reason I have done that is to create that sense of common purpose and drive the agenda forward and I believe it is the right and appropriate way to do it.”

Cienciala’s comments followed a surge in recent press reports and accusations from some lobby group’s about collusion between government officials and the food industry over obesity, which has resulted in “flurry of freedom of information requests”​ from the media and parliamentary evidence about the “hundreds of meetings that I have had with the food industry”,​ he added.

“Just as the causes​ [of obesity] are hugely complex … so the solutions are not going to be simple and easily boiled down to one or two actions but are going to be multi-factorial, varied, complex and carry with them the baggage that comes with that: some real issues around evidence; around establishing cause and effect,” ​said Cienciala.

“I see those as real challenges but also as a warning that we oversimplify at our peril. Equally we take the absence of definitive evidence as a reason for inaction at our peril too.”

Promotion of food

While stressing that there was a still a lot more to do, particularly regarding the promotion of food high in fat, sugar and salt, Cienciala highlighted what had been achieved so far by working closely with the industry. He cited the progress achieved through the PHRD on things like reformulation to reduce levels of fats, salt and sugar and front-of-pack colour coded nutrition labelling to better inform consumers about what they are eating.

“I am truly proud of where we are on this. For the first time, and uniquely across the globe, we have an unashamed focus on the ‘calories in’ bit of the equation,”​ said Cienciala, which he described as the “top thing to tackle”.

However, he criticised the recent focus by some tabloids, lobby groups and health experts that are trying to lay the blame for obesity solely on individual nutrients, such as sugar, rather tackling the problem holistically.

“In terms of media messages, simple is so important,”​ said Cienciala. “I worry that if we start focusing on sugar and fat and debating it we can confuse when actually eating fewer calories is where we should be focusing our messages on.”

Earlier this month, the Food and Drink Federation rejected claims made in the Daily Mail ​that food and drink industry leaders had enjoyed “unprecedented access to the heart of government”​. 

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