Blog: Katy AskewObesity debate rumbles on

Katy Askew | 14 January 2013

The pressure on food manufacturers and retailers to deliver healthier options has been a bit of a theme on our pages in the last week, after the UK government sent a warning shot across the bows of the food industry.

The government-backed Change4Life scheme kicked off the week by launching an advertising campaign to highlight hidden levels of salt, sugar and fat in products. 

With new figures suggesting that obesity is costing the National Health Service GBP5bn (US$8bn) a year, it is easy to see why debate is heating up on the subject. And it is not a topic that is going away as obesity levels increase from generation to generation. According to the latest data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 26.6% of girls and 22.7% of boys are considered overweight or obese in the UK.

While the government stopped short of suggesting regulation to limit fat, salt and sugar in foods, there are those who believe regulation is not a world away.

Within the industry, there is an overwhelming preference for voluntary action over regulation. And, in many instances, the food sector has embarked on a process of reformulation.

Indeed, there was also evidence of this voluntary approach during the course of the week, when discount retailer Lidl launched a trial "healthy till" initiative. The company said it will remove confectionery products from till areas in its 600 UK stores. 

Commendable you might think (unless of course you are a confectioner). The "see it, want it, whine for it" phenomenon is easily recognisable for most parents and by placing unhealthy merchandise at the tills retailers are guaranteeing that confections will attract this kind of attention.

A spokesperson for Lidl told just-food that the trial came in response to growing consumer demand.

"We had sensed that an increasing number of customers were looking for guidance and clearer information from food retailers to help them to lead healthier lifestyles. Equally, though, we feel a significant responsibility to help our customers lead healthier lifestyles if they wish to do so. We came up with the idea of the healthy till to see how customers would respond to being offered a checkout experience where confectionery goods are replaced with products of a higher nutritional value."

However, on closer inspection, the initiative might not be as far-reaching as it seems. Lidl is making provision for one healthy till per store - the remainder of tills (the vast majority) will continue to set our their confectionery stall.

Nor does Lidl expect the move to have an impact on confectionery sales, suggesting that it is "too early to comment" but adding that a drop in sales is "unlikely". Lidl is not reducing its confectionery line-up, the spokesperson added. 

While Lidl's healthy tills move could be viewed as a step in the right direction, if the industry is to ward off the threat of regulation it seems likely that more substantial attempts to combat obesity will be required.


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