Obesity strategy: 10 things wholesalers need to know

Sugary drinks are in the firing line

To a chorus of criticism, the government recently unveiled its childhood obesity strategy action plan.

The government’s measures, centred on the sugar tax announced by former Chancellor George Osborne in March, primarily rely on voluntary action by the food and drink industry and don’t contain any restrictions on marketing and advertising.

Here are 10 of the must-know points from the childhood obesity strategy action plan that wholesalers need to know:

1. What suppliers need to do to future-proof in line with the plan

The government’s action plan says that all sectors of the food and drinks industry will be challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, “including a 5% reduction in year one”. The government claims this can be achieved through “reduction of sugar levels in products, reducing portion size, or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives.”

2. The nine categories in the firing line

The programme will initially focus on the nine categories that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes: breakfast cereals, yoghurts,  biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods (such as pastries), puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads. Work will then move on to cover the remaining relevant foods and drinks, including any products that may be out of scope of the soft drinks industry levy, for example, milk-based drinks.

3. Four-year plans for the categories in question

Public Health England (PHE) will advise the government on setting sugar targets per 100g of product and calorie caps for specific single-serving products. The four-year, category-specific targets for the nine initial categories will be published in March 2017. Progress will be measured on the basis of reductions in the sales-weighted average sugar content per 100g of food and drink, reductions in portion size so that these contain less sugar, or a clear sales shift towards lower sugar alternatives.

4. Plans to use “other levers” if progress isn’t made

PHE will give an assessment at 18 and 36 months points on the approach adopted by industry, September 2018 and March 2020, respectively. The government will use this information to determine whether sufficient progress is being made and whether “alternative levers” need to be used by the government to reduce sugar and calories in food and drink consumed by children. If there has not been sufficient progress by 2020, “we will use other levers to achieve the same aims,” the report warns.

5. Suppliers acting now to cut sugar can avoid the sugar tax

Suppliers have already undertaken work to reduce the amount of sugar in products such as cereals, desserts, yoghurts and sweets by 20%, and this new action plan emphasises that manufacturers that reduce sugar in their products will escape the sugar tax, which is not due to come in until 2018.

6. Soft drinks levy cash will pay for healthier school breakfasts

In England, the revenue from a proposed soft drinks industry levy will be invested in programmes to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and balanced diets for school age children, the government claims. This, it says, includes doubling the Primary PE and Sport Premium, and putting a further £10 million a year into school healthy breakfast clubs to give more children a healthier start to their day.

7. What about salt and saturated fat products?

“Sugar reductions should be accompanied by reductions in calories and should not be compensated for by increases in saturated fat,” the plan warns, adding that work to achieve salt targets “should continue alongside the sugar reduction programme”. From 2017, the programme will be extended to include setting targets to reduce total calories in a wider range of products contributing to children’s calorie intake and across all sectors, including the out-of-home sector. Work on saturated fat will be further reviewed in light of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s recommendations due in 2017.

8. Foodservice sector also targeted to provide healthier items

The report notes that every public sector setting, from leisure centres to hospitals, “should have a food environment designed so the easy choices are also the healthy ones.” The government says that it will continue to work with local authorities to help to tackle childhood obesity: including encouraging local authorities to adopt the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF) standards, particularly in leisure centre vending machines, and also spearheading a full uptake of the GBSF in central government departments.

9. Brexit may help bring about changes to packaging

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union will give the government “greater flexibility to determine what information should be presented on packaged food, and how it should be displayed,” according to the plan. This may include clearer visual labelling, such as teaspoons of sugar, to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink.

10. Be prepared for more twists and turns

“The launch of this plan represents the start of a conversation, rather than the final word,” the government notes in the report.

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