THE CHILDHOOD obesity strategy: what can be inferred from three days of debates, seminars and presentations during Food Matters Live?
Regulation rather than responsibility deal
THE GOVERNMENT’S deputy chief medical officer doesn’t think the voluntary agreements with industry are working. Dr Gina Radford noted the achievements of some companies but said that others have not come up to the mark under the Public Health Responsibility Deal. The odds of eating healthily remain “stacked against” children, which meant the new strategy (slated for the new year) will be “challenging”, she said. Her comments followed similar hints in October by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who said a more “draconian” approach may be required to tackle childhood obesity.
Industry an outsider
RADFORD’S COMMENTS came during a panel session with Ufi Ibrahim, the chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, and Ian Wright, the Food and Drink Federation’s director general. Currently, there is clearly no love lost between the government and the food industry it has long been so cosy with. Ibrahim suggested there was a “fortification” around the Department of Health and it’s clear that industry doesn’t know what the DoH is up to. Could the chancellor spring another surprise like the “living wage” and sign off a sugar tax?
Targets not taxes
Regulation could, of course, mean mandatory targets rather than taxes. There’s nothing to stop more restaurants and caterers adding their own levy to sugary drinks, as the Jamie Oliver chain has done. With so few having embraced anything but the more straightforward elements of the responsibility deal, this remains unlikely. The government may therefore try a halfway house, setting mandatory targets for reformulation and portion sizes.
Money for old rope
Financially this approach would appear to make sense for government and industry. Both appear to agree that there’s no point ripping everything up and starting again. Ibrahim said she may well set about totting up how much it has cost members to implement their commitments to the responsibility deal. That shouldn’t be too hard (and it’s surprising neither the FDF or BHA have done so yet). What may be much more difficult to determine – but absolutely critical in defending the deal – is what impact this has had on the choices consumers make.
Industry bodies are clearly desperate to keep the responsibility deal, or at least voluntary agreements, in the mix. However, they lack any data to back their arguments up. The British Soft Drinks Association claims advertising spending on low- and no-calorie drinks has increased 50% in the past year, but won’t provide a figure, let alone an idea of what proportion of total spending on soft drinks is. Campaigners, on the hand, come armed with data and one day the government is going to start listening – especially when it’s combined with public pressure.