Industry’s sugar stance is hard to swallow

Recently all the talk was about cheat devices hidden in VW cars. That hasn’t gone away, but end of last year I spent three days at Food Matters Live hearing about another covert operation – hidden sugars. With Health & Vitality Honours just behind us, its more topical than ever.

You might have seen the odd press article of late lambasting the new anti- ambrosia. This is all building to the government’s childhood obesity strategy to be launched in the spring. Campaigners want a sugar tax, wider bans on advertising junk food to children and faster reformulation. Industry would rather the industry-led, voluntary approach trundles on.

The very first panel set the scene:

  • IanWright, the head of the Food and Drink Federation, in defensive mode: “It would have been nice if the NHS and public health authorities had been doing more [to tackle obesity] over the last 15 years.”
  • The British Hospitality Association’s chief executive, Ufi Ibrahim, pushing  (maybe less forcefully than some of her members would have liked) for a B continuation of the Public Health Responsibility Deal: “Lots of companies have invested a lot of money [in their commitments to the deal]. We want to see that investment continue.”

The deal is obviously fizzling out. “We’re not sure where the responsibility deal is at this time,” was the take of the Sodexo brand director, Phil Hooper, a long-time advocate of the initiative. Ibrahim suggested that access to the Department of Health had become increasingly difficult. Could the government be working on something the industry might not like? The childhood obesity strategy is imminent, so we shall see.

Dr Gina Radford, the deputy chief medical officer, gave little away in terms of the nuts and bolts of the strategy, but did hint that the current approach isn’t working. Her line appeared to be that not enough companies have signed up to the responsibility deal, and those that have often select the easy options (as we have reported in the past). The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in spite of his reported delaying of a recent advisory report on sugar, has also suggested a more “draconian” approach is needed.

Industry is clearly concerned that Hunt is ready to pick up the stick – the FDF is reportedly pre-empting any changes to advertising rules with its own voluntary bans. However, it might be too little too late. The odds of eating healthily are “stacked against” children, Radford said.

Regulation does not equal taxation, of course. Support for a sugar tax has ballooned in recent months, with Jamie Oliver at the head of the queue. He’s already slapped a charge on soft drinks in his restaurants but I can’t see that many have yet followed his lead. This belies the reluctance of the sector to take action (Radford’s chief criticism), as companies carry on sugar-coating the results of the carrot approach.

The bottom line is that through the responsibility deal not enough companies have taken responsibility for the impact they have on public health. I’m not saying solving obesity and improving public health is all about sugar, or even all about junk food and fizzy drinks, but when you hear the likes of the FDF suggesting it’s all the fault of the government and consumers it provides a taste of what makes this industry tick. And it’s a bitter one.

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