That is the message in a new report Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food from the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, published today.
The report said that, in the UK food system, the production, manufacture, retail and consumption of food was failing and serving as a barrier to healthy eating, hitting the poorest hardest.
The COVID-19 crisis had exposed the fragility of many people’s economic situation and should be a “wake-up call” for urgent action, according to the committee. The food industry came under heavy fire. In particular food manufacturers were accused of “perpetuating the demand for less healthy, highly processed products”.
The report said food manufacturers and retailers had been “reluctant and slow to act” over reformulating products and urged Government regulation.
Peers said that a significant proportion of food was highly processed by food manufacturers to a point where products contained high levels of energy (calories), salt, sugar and unhealthy types of fat, which contributed to disease risks; and low levels of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, which helped to protect against diet-related diseases.
It also criticised the fact that these highly processed foods were then aggressively marketed and promoted to the consumer, often at discounted prices.
The committee did recognise that there was some encouraging work underway by individual companies and organisations to reformulate products.
But it added: “The fact that industry progress against voluntary reformulation targets has been limited suggests that many manufacturers and retailers are not yet fully engaged in efforts to reduce harmful levels of less healthy ingredients. The industry needs to take more responsibility for the products it produces, manufactures and sells to the consumer.
It said that both the salt and sugar reduction programmes were likely to fail to achieve their stated targets, so the Government must increase and maintain the pressure on industry to act. Crucially, it said the government should make clear what regulatory action would follow if the industry did not respond comprehensively and swiftly to voluntary targets.
The committee also raised concerns about potential trade agreements that would allow for the import of cheap food, produced according to lower environmental and animal welfare standards. This could put UK producers, and even consumers’ health, at a disadvantage, it said.
The report suggested a mandatory reporting regime for adherence against sustainability and health metrics and a review of labelling that it said should be compulsory for all food manufacturers and retailers.
Lord Krebs, chair of the committee, said: “Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of.
“The Government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said: “This landmark report clearly explains the raft of actions needed to tackle our nation’s dietary inequalities, which have been highlighted so starkly by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This report shows that millions of families can’t eat well unless they have sufficient income and an environment which makes the healthy choice the easiest. People can no longer wait for lengthy Government consultations that languish in Whitehall.”
The committee wants the Government to:
- Start to measure how many people live with food insecurity, and analyse why;
- Understand the cost of a healthy diet and incorporate this into benefits calculations;
- Act to curb excessive advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods by the food industry;
- Step up pressure on the food industry to reduce sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and calories in processed food, and introduce mandatory requirements where change has not happened;
- Ensure that food initiatives for disadvantaged children, such as Healthy Start and free school meals, are properly funded, implemented and monitored;
- Establish an independent body to oversee the implementation of a National Food Strategy and report annually to Parliament on progress;
- Use the opportunity of the Agriculture Bill to encourage production and consumption of healthier food and ensure that it delivers to the public the environmental goods it is designed to.