Pressure mounts for mandatory fat, salt and sugar targets

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Manufacturers and retailers disagree about targets for reformulating food
Manufacturers and retailers disagree about targets for reformulating food

Related tags Childhood obesity strategy Nutrition

Government is coming under increasing pressure to set targets for the fat, salt and sugar content of food and drink in advance of the publication of its childhood obesity strategy, which is expected later this summer.

The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), a group of health professionals and others, has called on the government to force food and drink manufacturers to reduce the fat, salt and sugar content of their products by set amounts to curb the nation’s rising obesity levels. It has also demanded a ban on TV advertisements for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) food before the 9pm watershed.

The OHA’s demands have been issued in advance of the publication of the government’s much anticipated childhood obesity strategy. This has now been delayed and is now not expected to be published until after the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU on June 23.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents UK manufacturers, has consistently argued against mandatory fat, salt and sugar targets in food and drink, claiming that far greater progress has been achieved in healthy reformulation by voluntary measures, through the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) for Food and Drink.

However, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) is in favour of mandatory targets in order that a level playing field is established.

Targeted approach to reformulation

“Retailers have led the way in removing sugar from their products and will continue to do so,”​ said a BRC spokesman. “In order to achieve an effective improvement in children’s’ diets, there needs to be a targeted approach to reformulation, similar to that proposed by Public Health England.

“It is vital that this be adopted by all food companies, which is why we have argued for a mandatory approach. Mandatory targets avoid the problem with voluntary schemes where only some companies participate. With mandatory targets, we will see change across the board and those companies that are more progressive in removing sugar will not penalised.”

However, the BRC recognised that reducing sugar was not the only approach to tackling obesity and in some cases its members would look at other methods, such as appropriate portion sizes alongside targets.

“We believe this approach is possible through consultation to agree appropriate targets and reduction over a suitable period that allows consumer tastes to change and companies to adapt. However, once the consultation is completed, the targets need to be mandatory to ensure implementation,” ​the spokesman added.

But mandatory targets are not supported by the FDF, nor further restrictions on TV advertising.

Childhood obesity strategy

“Obesity is a complex issue requiring a collaborative approach involving everyone,”​ said the FDF’s corporate affairs director Tim Rycroft. “We hope government’s long awaited childhood obesity strategy will bring about change across the board – in education, transport, town planning, health at work and physical activity – as well as to diets which many people need.

“The UK has some of the strictest rules on TV advertising and children today see far fewer ads for HFSS foods than in previous years.

“Britain’s food and drink manufacturers recently committed to support a change to advertising codes which would stop adverts for HFSS products being targeted at under-16s in any medium, including online. This voluntary action brings online restrictions into line with those already around children’s TV programmes and recognises that children are increasingly spending time online.”

Rycroft added: “Food and drink companies have a proud record of voluntarily removing salt, and more recently fat and sugar too, from their products.

“This process must, by necessity, proceed at a speed that consumer tastes allow. Since the technical challenges of reformulation differ almost from one product to the next, there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach, so mandatory reformulation is both unworkable and profoundly undesirable.”

However, health campaigners have claimed that voluntary measures were insufficient and called for tougher fiscal instruments to be introduced, such as mandatory fat, salt and sugar targets and taxes on foods high in fat sugar and salt (HFSS).

Diet-related diseases

They have long argued that more pressure is required on food and drink manufacturers to cut the UK population’s bulging waistlines and diet-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

In a surprise announcement in his March budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced a tax on sugary soft drinks. This will come into force in 2018.

In December 2015, the FDF’s director general Ian Wright suggested that the government had “parked”​ the PHRD.

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