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  1. Analysis
July 15, 2010

UK coalition’s vision on food and health dismays campaigners

The UK government’s intention to cancel the GBP75m social advertising campaign supporting the Change4Life programme has dismayed campaigners who remain equally concerned about the future of the Food Standards Agency, the UK’s independent food watchdog. Ben Cooper assesses reaction from industry and campaigners to the new coalition government’s emerging thinking on food and health.

The UK government’s intention to cancel the GBP75m (US$115.3m) social advertising campaign supporting the Change4Life programme has dismayed campaigners who remain equally concerned about the future of the Food Standards Agency, the UK’s independent food watchdog. Ben Cooper assesses reaction from industry and campaigners to the new coalition government’s emerging thinking on food and health.

In the nine weeks since the General Election, the new coalition government has had its hands full coping with a huge budget deficit and a stuttering economy, while bedding down an uneasy political alliance. The food industry, one imagined, would have to wait some time for a detailed picture to emerge of the new government’s food policy.

However, recent events have given a clear indication of the administration’s thinking on food and health and its implications for food companies.

Last week, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley signalled that the GBP75m social advertising campaign supporting the Change4Life programme would be cut, at the same time urging industry to step up its involvement in the campaign.

This was followed at the weekend by reports that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is about to be disbanded. Those reports turned out to be somewhat wide of the mark, but the subsequent media focus has thrown more light on the Government’s plans for the independent watchdog, which seem likely to entail trimming its remit to focus only on food safety.

Both the cutting of the Change4Life budget and the possible loss of the FSA’s remit on diet and nutrition have clear implications for the food and health debate and how industry responds to concerns over obesity. 

Julian Hunt, director of communications for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), stressed that Change4Life has always been “much more than just a glossy marketing campaign” and that industry had played a significant role from the outset.

He said he did not see this as industry being asked to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of public funds but major national ad spend being replaced by enhanced collaboration and coordination between voluntary, government, non-government and commercial entities. Hunt also said it was not just the food industry which was being urged to contribute but other commercial actors, such as the fitness industry. But he said he expected food companies to answer the Government’s call for greater involvement.

Hunt said there would clearly be opportunities for food companies to partner with the campaign at a national level, in a manner already seen by brands such as Unilever’s Flora and McCain’s, to underpin work at the local level by the Department of Health, in schools and through other organisations. 

But in his speech to the UK Faculty of Public Health Conference on 7 July, Lansley specifically stated that industry would be asked to give direct financial support. He said: “To date, industry has made ‘in kind’ contributions. I will now be pressing them to provide actual funding behind the campaign.” 

Generally uneasy about the idea of corporate involvement in public health messaging, campaigners have expressed concern about shifting the onus to companies. Jackie Schneider of the Children’s Food Campaign said the development was “deeply worrying” and the “idea that companies were going to be in a position to define strategies” was “laughable if it weren’t so serious”. She added that companies would be using Change4Life initiatives as simply “another way to market themselves”.

However, to portray this change as abandoning social marketing and leaving the fate of the campaign in the hands of industry may be somewhat alarmist. 

In his speech, Lansley said his expectations of the food industry went beyond what he expected companies to contribute to Change4Life. “They need to do more,” he said. “If we are to reverse the trends in obesity, the commercial sector needs to change their business practices, including how they promote their brands and product reformulation.”

Moreover, the ‘joined-up’ approach Lansley envisages for Change4Life is in tune with the thinking emanating from the 2007 Foresight Report, which urged a multi-stranded approach to tackling obesity involving the coordination of activities and policies across a range of areas by government and external organisations.

The issue of how public education on diet and health is managed is also central to the debate over the future of the FSA, which was thrown into the media spotlight this week by reports that the independent watchdog is about to be scrapped.

On Monday (12 July), the Department of Health said: “No decision has been taken over the FSA. All Arms-Length Bodies will be subject to a review.”

However, later that day, it issued this further statement: “The Government recognises the important role of the Food Standards Agency and there will continue to be a robust regulatory function delivered through the FSA. As part of our wider drive to increase the accountability of public bodies and reduce their number and cost, we will also consider where some of the other functions of the FSA should best sit to ensure they are delivered most effectively.”

The latter arguably provides the clearest indication to date on Conservative thinking on the FSA and chimes with the desire expressed by the Conservatives when in opposition to transfer the FSA’s remit for nutrition and diet to the Department of Health. This also fits with Lansley’s overall vision for the Department of Health to be “more focused on public health”. 

Campaigners expressed concern about the mooted changes at the FSA. Various initiatives, notably its work on salt reduction and the research it conducted on front-of-pack nutritional labelling, have been applauded by campaigners. 

While some observers have suggested the FSA losing its brief on nutrition and diet will be welcomed by industry, characterising the agency as something of a thorn in the industry’s side, ironically campaigners had more recently accused the FSA of yielding to industry pressure on issues such as GM and front-of-pack labelling.

For its part, the FDF denied that it had lobbied to close down the agency as had been suggested in some reports.

Hunt said the industry supported the FSA in its food safety role. “Our hope is that we will still have an independent food safety regulator.” However, he added that he could “see the logic” in handing the diet and nutrition responsibilities to the Department of Health. “It has clear merit. If public health is such a big part of the government’s focus, to have it all in one place and a coordinated view of it, it’s got to make sense.”

While Schneider admitted that the FSA was “not perfect”, it was the potential loss of an independent agency looking at food and nutrition that was worrying. The Department of Health could only take a tough stance with industry, she said, if it was allowed to by ministers.

Meanwhile, Tom MacMillan of the Food Ethics Council said that transferring the FSA’s responsibilities for nutrition and diet to the Department of Health would mean potentially losing the benefit of the valuable experience and learning the FSA had acquired over recent years. “That experience resides at the moment with the agency and transferring that somewhere else, especially if there is tighter pressure on spending, would be quite a job.”

While it may be simplistic to characterise the new government’s approach as yielding to the will of big business, reaction to recent events does suggest campaigners are far more worried about the direction the government is taking on food and health than their counterparts in the food industry.

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