In the spotlight - Industry sat fat moves fail to impress campaigners
By Ben Cooper | 29 October 2013
Oreo among brands set to see new recipes
The announcement this week from the UK government and industry of moves to lower saturated fat has been met with some criticism in campaign circles. The Responsibility Deal, the process through which government and manufacturers are working on issues like health and obesity, has again been called into question, while some question whether the focus should have been on sugar. Ben Cooper reports.
When the UK government announced the creation of a hybrid front-of-pack nutritional labelling system in June with the backing of a good number of food retailers and producers, there was a generally positive response from health NGOs and medical experts.
The coalition government with its much maligned Responsibility Deal, seen by campaigners as an ineffective means of driving change, had brought about something public health pressure groups had been pushing for over many years, in some cases decades.
However, the announcement by the Department of Health this weekend that it had secured pledges from food manufacturers and retailers to reduce saturated fat in foods has not elicited the same response.
Nestle, Mondelez International and Unilever were among the companies that said they will make changes to their products to try to cut the amount of saturated fat consumed in the UK.
Melanie Leech, director general of industry association The Food and Drink Federation, said the moves "underline food and drink manufacturers' determination to play a full part in supporting improved public health".
However, campaigners branded the undertakings as inadequate, with the government criticised for failing to bring a larger proportion of the industry along, while even the focus on saturated fat was questioned.
The Department of Health said the specific pledges meant "more than one and a half Olympic size swimming pools of saturated fat will be removed from the nation's diet over the next year". But when asked, a Department of Health spokesperson could not say how many Olympic swimming pools of saturated fat were currently in the food supply chain.
Speaking to just-food, Alan Maryon-Davis, Honorary Professor of Public Health at the Department of Primary Care & Public Health Sciences at Kings College in London, said the pledges were "dressed up to look like a massive amount of saturated fat being taken out of the food chain" but represented a "very small proportion" of total fat intake. He also observed the pledges were not "hitting where the main bulk of saturated fat intake is", such as dairy and ready meals.
UK public health minister Jane Ellison said it was "hugely encouraging" companies representing almost half of the country's food supply had committed to the latest Responsibility Deal pledge.
However, Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, said it was a sad reflection on the efforts of industry and government that half the market was not involved. "This is something most companies should be getting behind," he said.
Clark believes the Government "certainly could have gone further" in encouraging more companies to get involved in the process and urging those who are involved to go further. It had been reluctant to use the "bully pulpit" of government power to "lead and press" industry for change.
However, Clark welcomed the focus that had been placed specifically on product reformulation. The existing calorie reduction pledge was more generalised he said, covering portion sizes, consumer education, changes in marketing mix towards lower calorie options, along with reformulation.
That said, Clark argued the sat fat pledge illustrated two key weaknesses of the Responsibility Deal, namely the lack of quantifiable targets or mechanisms for holding companies to account for their pledges and its inability to do anything about laggard companies.
Maryon-Davis added the agreement again revealed the Responsibility Deal to be a "weak instrument" and a "sop" to industry.
Supporters of the Responsibility Deal may claim the agreement on front-of-pack (FOP) labelling as a vindication of the system. However, Clark pointed out the process had begun under the previous government and the auspices of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and had only latterly been subsumed into the Responsibility Deal.
Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the Responsibility Deal food network, defended the its record. She said "great progress" had been made in changing eating options and habits. "Everyone involved can be proud of the work done so far but we know more can be done."
She said the addition of a sat fat pledge to the Responsibility Deal "means we now have a suite of Responsibility Deal pledges that help companies cut fat, sugar and salt, which together will help consumers achieve a healthier diet and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease".
This is a debatable point. One might draw the impression from this that there are specific reduction pledges in the Responsibility Deal for all three nutrients. In fact, while there is one for salt, pledges related to sugar reduction are contained within the calorie reduction pledge. Clark went as far as to say that the statement was "thoroughly disingenuous" in giving the impression that there was a specific sugar reduction.
Indeed, it has been suggested a specific added sugar reduction pledge may have been a greater priority from a public health perspective than one on saturated fat.
Professor Maryon-Davis said it would be "tricky" to say that for certain. However, he pointed out that while the risks around saturated fat remained and consumption of was still too high, there had been significant progress on fat intake and that obesity was arguably a more pressing concern. "You could argue that coronary heart disease rates are coming down quite nicely and that the big issue now is around obesity, and therefore sugar is becoming more and more important," he said.
Clark said a move specifically on sugar would have been more beneficial. "More and more of the scientific evidence and medical opinion is on the need to reduce sugar," he said. He also pointed out that some of the products included in the saturated fat pledges are "incredibly sugary".
Discussion of the relative merits of reducing saturated fat or sugar is particularly salient in light of the claims made last week in the British Medical Journal by Dr Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist at Croydon University Hospital in London. Dr Malhotra said health risks associated with high-fat foods had been overstated and there had not been enough emphasis on added sugar.
The Malhotra claims were met with some caution by other health professionals. British Heart Foundation medical director Professor Peter Weissberg said research into links between diet and disease frequently produce "conflicting results", that people with highest cholesterol levels are at highest risk of a heart attack "and it's also clear that lowering cholesterol, by whatever means, lowers risk."
Professor Maryon-Davis said it was right to emphasise the importance of added sugar in tackling obesity but said Malhotra "goes a little a little bit too far in that direction" and questioned some of the research he had cited.
However, that the Responsibility Deal move on saturated fat has coincided with a debate over the relative benefits of focusing on fat or on sugar gives the Government more questions to answer about the policy process.
Overall, campaigners and health professionals are unimpressed by the Government's latest move on dietary health, and scepticism of the Responsibility Deal is again running high. What they see as limited steps being undertaken by companies reflect that the Responsibility Deal allows industry to deliver change on its own terms rather than being pushed by government and by the multi-stakeholder process the Responsibility Deal entails.
Malcolm Clark said he expects pressure on food companies to move faster would now increase, while Professor Maryon-Davis said he expected there to be continued pressure on the Government and industry regarding added sugar. The Department of Health spokesperson could not confirm whether an added sugar pledge would now be under discussion. The next topic to be addressed by the Responsibility Deal Food Network is food promotion, which will be discussed at what may well be a lively meeting next month.
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In the spotlight - Industry sat fat moves fail to impress campaigners