According to figures from OECD, 26.6% of UK girls and 22.7% of boys are considered overweight or obese

According to figures from OECD, 26.6% of UK girls and 22.7% of boys are considered overweight or obese

Calls for limits on salt, sugar and fat in foods marketed to children in the UK do not seem so far-fetched when one considers the scale of the challenge posed by poor diet.

When the UK's main opposition party proposed the idea of maximum legal limits last weekend, health officials, the food industry and many commentators quickly brushed-off the suggestion as another example of petty, nanny-statism.

Shadow health minister Andy Burnham was lampooned for wanting to ban the Frosties breakfast cereal.

It is interesting, then, to note that the only person not leaping aboard the bash Labour bandwagon was the present health minister, Jeremy Hunt. Perhaps conscious of being politically outmanoeuvred by Labour, he said regulation was a possibility if the food industry does not "get its house in order".

The present political reality in the UK is that regulation of food is not particularly high on the agenda. There is a Coalition Government dominated by a party that is ideologically opposed to regulation wherever possible; as was its predecessor administration, in practice. In addition, the country's economic bind means job creation is the overriding priority in all sectors.

What's more, both the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and Department of Health are still fully backing voluntary initiatives as part of the Responsibility Deal between government and industry.

"Through voluntary commitments, manufacturers have made significant progress in reducing salt, saturated fat and calories in their products," an FDF spokesperson told just-food this week. "Salt levels have reduced 9% since 2006 and some manufacturers have introduced calorie caps in particular for snacks and soft drinks," she added.
 
This may be so, but the dietary figures available for the UK continue to make gruesome reading. New figures from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that 26.6% of UK girls and 22.7% of boys are considered overweight or obese.

A rather conservative estimate from the UK Government, meanwhile, suggests obesity costs the National Health Service GBP5bn per year. Furthermore, recent figures released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that no region of the UK is currently hitting its five-a-day fruit and vegetable consumption target. Purchases of fruit and vegetables have actually fallen across households of all income groups in the past five years.
 
Of course, it's impossible to force people to eat well. At the same time, the figures suggest very much that the battle against diet-related ill-health is in a state of attrition, if not being outright lost.

Malcolm Clark, of the Children's Food Campaign, run by the Sustain alliance, told just-food: "The emphasis is on greater nudges to consumers, but the government needs to do more to change the behaviour of manufacturers and retailers, too."

The logical consequence of individual responsibility is to penalise consumers for diet-related ill-health. In the private, insurance-based healthcare system, this already happens to an extent.

Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch believe this will happen more and more, calculating that medical costs for treating obese patients are an average 40% higher than for non-obese patients.

Beyond the individual, though, there could be consequences for food producers and retailers, too. For example, alcohol and tobacco is already taxed to - at least notionally - reflect the greater strain consumption puts on healthcare and related inefficiency in the economy.     

More generally, and alongside greater scrutiny of lifestyles, the BofA Merrill Lynch analysts see regulation coming down the track. "As happened with smoking, it is likely that the growing cost burden of obesity on governments, corporates and wider society will spur collective action and greater regulation," they said in a note late last year.

Some healthy campaigners believe Jeremy Hunt's words last weekend may yet prove prophetic. Such is the mounting magnitude of the public health challenge, regulation could well prove difficult for the food industry to avoid in the medium and longer-term.

Its main chance of doing so is to build on progress to-date by engaging more fully in building a sustainable, healthful food environment.