The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents 148 retailers across the UK – including all the major multiples – said it was disappointed that the strategy didn’t impose mandatory cuts in sugar, fats and salt. It said the only way to reduce childhood obesity was to make all food and drink manufacturers compete on a level playing field.
The childhood obesity strategy, released yesterday (August 18), announced voluntary targets for reformulation for food and drink manufacturers. All sectors of the industry would be challenged to reduce sugar content by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one, if they wanted to avoid a sugar tax.
BRC director of food and sustainability policy Andrew Opie said manufacturers might not reduce sugar content as much as they could, for fear of losing a competitive advantage.
Opie told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “If you’re going to have a plan that works, you’ve got to have a strategy that drives everybody at the same speed. [Ideally] you’d have regulations that set targets and by doing that everybody follows the same route.
‘A sense of fatigue’
“After years of working around salt reformulation, there’s a sense of fatigue around voluntary initiatives, in that it’s the same companies engaging in the same process, and eventually they’re penalised commercially, whereas others sit on their hands and don’t do anything.”
The strategy also left out two measures which Public Health England said would have the biggest impact – restricting advertising and reducing promotions of junk food. Sainsbury had already started removing promotions on multi-buy packs of sugary foods.
Sainsbury chief executive Mike Coupe said: “We need a holistic approach to tackle childhood obesity, including compulsory measured targets across all nutrients – not just sugar – and mandatory traffic light labelling across all food and drink products, regardless of whether they are consumed inside or outside the home.”
The BRC also complained that the obesity strategy focused on sugar, when there were plenty of other nutrients in the diet that needed to be controlled too.
Elsewhere, an academic from the University of Winchester echoed the BRC’s worries, and said there should be other, equally pressing, concerns for consumers.
‘Rust removers and toilet cleaners’
Dr Claire Robertson, a nutritional expert from the University of Winchester, told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “Fizzy drinks [for example] typically contain phosphoric acid – the same thing as found in rust removers and toilet cleaners – so is it really sugar that consumers should be worried about?”
Meanwhile, British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) director general Gavin Partington said the strategy had unfairly singled out the soft drinks industry. He added that a sugar tax after 2020 would be unlikely to reduce childhood obesity.
“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.”
The Food and Drink Federation also gave a mixed response following the strategy’s release. Director general Ian Wright said: “The government has acknowledged that working in partnership with industry on a voluntary basis is the best way to make progress on this crucial issues. We are committed to that partnership.” However, Wright was critical of the sugar levy on soft drinks.
What they say about the childhood obesity strategy
- “After years of working around salt reformulation, there’s a sense of fatigue around voluntary initiatives, in that it’s the same companies engaging the same process, and eventually they’re penalised commercially, whereas others sit on their hands and don’t do anything”
Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium
- “We need a holistic approach to tackle childhood obesity, including compulsory measured targets across all nutrients”
Mike Coupe, Sainsbury