The strategy, which is very much focused around the planned sugar tax on soft drinks announced in a surprise move by former Chancellor George Osborne in March, was slammed by British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) director general Gavin Partington, for unfairly singling out soft drinks.
The government has also launched a consultation on the introduction of the proposed sugar tax on soft drinks, due to come into force in April 2018.
The sugar tax was unlikely to meet its desired objectives of reducing childhood obesity, said Partington, not least since the soft drinks sector had done more than any other to reduce the calorie content of its products through the availability of low- and no-calorie variants. He also claimed the tax would unfairly penalise consumers and threatened as many as 4,000 jobs in the sector.
‘Thousands of job losses’
“Given the economic uncertainty our country now faces, we’re disappointed the government wishes to proceed with a measure which analysis suggests will cause thousands of job losses and yet fail to have a meaningful impact on levels of obesity,” said Partington.
“As an industry, we recognise we have a role to play in tackling obesity, so it’s a sad irony that the one category that has led the way in reducing consumers’ sugar intake – down 16% from soft drinks since 2012 – is being targeted for a punitive tax.
“Our action on reformulation and smaller pack sizes is clearly working, and in 2015 we became the only category to set a voluntary calorie reduction target of 20% by 2020. We also voluntarily extended the advertising rules regarding under-16s to all online media.”
But lobby groups such as the Action on Sugar (AoS) and the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC), together with consumer group Which? – which accused the government of being in denial – were scathing in their criticism of the strategy for missing the opportunity to introduce mandatory restrictions on the advertising and promotion of sugary products to children.
While the strategy has introduced targets for reducing the amount of sugar in food and drink products by 20% by 2020, these are solely voluntary measures, which the campaigners have attacked for following what they considered to be the failed Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) initiative between government and industry.
The PHRD sought to reduce the levels of fat, sugar and salt in food by reformulation by voluntary action by the industry.
Although much was achieved by manufacturers in reducing salt over the years, it proved less successful in cutting sugar and salt levels. It was also criticised by retailers, led by the British Retail Consortium, which called for a ‘level playing field’ and mandatory targets to be set, covering the foodservice as well as the retail sector.
‘Weak obesity strategy’
AoS said: “Theresa May has failed the nation with the release of such a weak ‘obesity strategy’ despite calls to release a robust and effective plan.”
Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of AoS and Consensus Action on Salt and Health, said: “After the farce of the Responsibility Deal where Andrew Lansley made the food industry responsible for policing themselves, it is sad to see that this is just another imitation of the same Responsibility Deal take two. It is an insulting response to the UK crisis in obesity type 2 diabetes both in children and adults. This will bankrupt the NHS unless something radical is done.”
However, Food and Drink Federation director general Ian Wright responded: “Food and drink manufacturers recognise our responsibility in meeting the challenges posed by obesity. Government has acknowledged that working in partnership with industry on a voluntary basis is the best way to make progress on this crucial issue. We are committed to that partnership.
“The proposed tax on soft drinks is a disappointing diversion from effective measures to tackle obesity.”
He added: “Indeed, many individual manufacturers have a proud track record of reformulation to remove salt, fat and sugar from food and drinks and this work will continue.”
Wright described the target set for sugar reduction in the strategy as “flawed”.
‘Focus on a single nutrient’
“It focuses too strongly on the role of this single nutrient, when obesity is caused by excess calories from any nutrient. Moreover, the target is unlikely to be technically practical across all the selected food categories,” he said.
Wright claimed reformulation was both difficult and costly, and presented different challenges for each product. What’s more, he said, recipe change could only proceed at a pace dictated by consumers.
“We will, of course, do everything we can in the next six months to work towards a practicable reformulation solution while continuing to urge the government to adopt a ‘whole diet’ approach,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, Alex Neill, director of policy and campaigns at Which? claimed: “The government is in denial if it thinks this vague plan and voluntary scheme are enough to tackle the current obesity crisis.
“Just last month we found that most supermarket price-promotions are on less healthy foods and unhealthy foods are still being prominently promoted to children at checkouts and tills.
“Much stronger and more decisive government action is needed to lower fat, sugar and salt content in foods and to ensure responsible promotions.”
CFC co-ordinator Malcolm Clark added: “This was the government’s chance to show that the UK is a world leader – not just on the Olympic medal table, but in tackling obesity, type II diabetes, dental decay and other forms of diet-related ill-health.
“However, apart from the sugary drinks tax, they have failed to get off the starting blocks. Indeed, what has been published today looks like the government running backwards: running away from a fully-fledged strategy to a watered-down plan; away from its own public health advisors’ recommendations; away from any action to curb junk food marketing and promotions; and away from mandatory measures, back to the past failed voluntary approaches.”