On August 18, the government finally published its childhood obesity strategy, writes David Burrows. After almost 12 months of delays, document leaks, parliamentary inquiries and intensive lobbying, the ‘far-reaching’ plan amounted to just 13 pages. In fact, the package of policies – designed to tackle a £5.1bn drain on the NHS – didn’t even merit a post on the gov.uk announcements page.
Added to that, the two proposals that topped the advice submitted by Public Health England in October – a clampdown on multi-buy promotions of unhealthy products and tighter restrictions on advertising junk foods to children – were nowhere to be seen. Most of the strategy seems to be a rehash of the maligned Responsibility Deal on Public Health, with industry challenged and encouraged rather than forced to reformulate and improve. Professor Parveen Kumar, chair of the British Medical Association’s board of science, says the fact the sugar target, for example, is voluntary renders it “pointless”.
So what does this mean for some of wholesalers’ key products? Retailers, manufacturers and foodservice firms will be tasked with cutting sugar by 20% by 2020 in a programme spanning nine categories: cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods (such as pastries), puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads. The government has vowed to use “other levers” if the industry isn’t up to speed by the turn of the decade, but not everyone is happy with the approach.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) says the target is “unlikely to be technically practical”. Honing in on sugar alone is “flawed”, adds FDF director general Ian Wright.
Some attempts to create healthier product lines have been made, of course, but replacing a critical ingredient in a product isn’t easy for food companies. Soft-drinks makers will nonetheless be forced to cut sugar or pay a tax – a consultation on the ‘soft-drinks-industry levy’ was launched alongside the obesity strategy. This was despite vocal opposition from a sugar tax coalition, comprising wholesalers and soft drinks manufacturers, which aims to highlight the economic consequences of the tax. The coalition is urging the government to rethink the policy and focus instead on “proven solutions that address obesity”. Research commissioned by the coalition from analyst firm Oxford Economics predicts that the tax will cost 4,000 jobs and wipe £132m from the economy.
Soft drinks are worth £1.8bn to wholesalers serving retailers and caterers, but industry shouldn’t lose sight of the most vital factor in all this: consumers.
Market analyst Mintel found that 97% of Brits try to eat healthily ‘at least some of the time’; research body Which? found that 53% want to see more healthy food promotions. Wholesalers such as Epicurium are showing the way forward, responding to such trends by basing its range on healthy snacks.
Ultimately, rather than shout at Theresa May, firms should be listening to Joe Public. The former may be PM, but the latter is always king.