COMMENT: Food industry must react positively to obesity report
An extensive report on the rising levels of obesity in the UK published last week included recommendations for more regulatory intervention. However, while that may worry food companies, Ben Cooper suggests the industry should welcome the report's prime contention that obesity will only be successfully tackled by a multi-stranded approach involving all stakeholders.
Food companies will probably have concerns about some elements of a new extensive report into obesity in the UK published last week, particularly as it suggests that more government intervention and regulation in the food industry may now have become necessary.
Like many other people, those who speak for the food industry will also be concerned that the report seemed to imply that personal responsibility is less important in tackling rising obesity than other factors. Indeed, much of the media reaction latched on to this issue.
On closer examination, it is clear that this is something of a misreading of what the report, published by the government-backed Foresight group, is saying. In blaming rising obesity on a combination of conspiring factors, the report is essentially suggesting that attributing the problem primarily to individual over-indulgence is simplistic, and that policy based too much on that one thesis will not be effective.
The report warns that the UK has become an "obesogenic" society, suggesting that such is the effect of a combination of factors, such as poor diet, less active lifestyles, greater labour-saving technology at home and at work and more motorised transport, that rising obesity has become a runaway express train of a problem. Obesity, it is saying, is simply an inevitable consequence of these combined factors.
"Foresight has for the first time drawn together complex evidence to show that we must fight the notion that the current obesity epidemic arises from individual over-indulgence or laziness alone," says Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser and head of the Foresight Programme. "Personal responsibility is important, but our study shows the problem is much more complicated. It is a wake-up call for the nation, showing that only change across many elements of our society will help us tackle obesity."
But as the media reaction showed, even a downplaying of the importance of personal responsibility is a worrying notion, both in terms of the food industry's CSR strategy and in a broader context.
On one level, the suggestion that personal responsibility is not a prime or even the prime factor could be seen as undermining preventive medicine and public health education which is fundamentally based on the idea that behaviour can be influenced and altered.
Meanwhile, food producers and retailers will be concerned because the idea that companies can continue to market indulgent foods, alongside healthier alternatives, leaving consumers to choose when to eat them as part of a balanced diet, is a cornerstone of the industry's CSR strategy. Undermining the significance of personal responsibility in turn undermines that approach.
However, reduced emphasis on personal responsibility is not the report's central thesis. Arguably Foresight's main point is that the problem cannot be solved by one solution alone, and this could and should be seen by the industry as quite positive.
True the report's authors are fairly sceptical about the market regulating itself and call for more regulatory intervention, but by implication they are also saying that even if more regulations concerning fatty foods were deemed necessary, they could only be part of the solution. What the food industry can focus on is that the necessity for concerted action brings it into the tent as a key stakeholder.
Indeed, the report acknowledges that the industry has been working to develop healthier products. It has to see the call for a diverse, multi-stranded policy as an opportunity to be part of the solution.
However, while the industry can see that as positive, the tenor of the report suggests that its personal choice mantra may cut less ice in the future, making it even more crucial for companies to place emphasis on responsible marketing and producing healthier product alternatives.
The involvement of all stakeholders and government departments in tackling the problem is an example of the "joined up" approach to government enthusiastically promoted by the Labour administration. Therefore it was no surprise to see Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo echoing the importance of a holistic approach.
Once again, Primarolo mentions regulation but acknowledges that it cannot be seen as a magic solution. "There is no single solution to tackle obesity and it cannot be tackled by Government action alone," the Minister said. "We will only succeed if the problem is recognised, owned and addressed at every level and every part of society. We have made progress with improved physical activity levels at school, healthier school food for children, clearer food labelling and tougher restrictions on advertising foods high in fat and sugar to children - but we know that we need to go further and faster."
The official definition of the term "fast" was another issue to attract significant comment following the publication of the report. As the project's sponsor, the Department of Health said it will now take responsibility for the research, using it to assist in policy development. A report in 12 months' time will outline the project's progress including action by other stakeholders.
But the fact that that there was so little in the way of immediate concrete action or policy to tackle such a pressing problem on the back of what is seen as the most thorough investigation of the subject undertaken so far, drew disappointment from health campaign groups, notably the British Heart Foundation.
The industry, however, could see the fact that governments take such a long time to consider their actions as a further opportunity. This administration's keenness to be seen as pro-business has meant that from the very beginning it has sought to give every form of self-regulation the fullest chance to demonstrate that it can work.
If the official response to the Foresight report is on the ponderous side it will give the industry more time to grasp the nettle and take further self-regulatory steps across a raft of CSR areas.
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