UKs strategy to tackle child obesity dubbed "worlds most ambitious"

UK's strategy to tackle child obesity dubbed "world's most ambitious"

The annual Food Matters Live conference and exhibition has been held in London this week, with industry, politicians, campaigners and academia meeting at a three-day business event that focuses on the links between food, health, nutrition and sustainability. Ben Cooper reports on the discussions centring on the UK government's bid to tackle childhood obesity.

At a session of the Food Matters Live Conference in London on Tuesday (21 November) discussing the progress of the UK government's childhood obesity strategy one year on, the country's deputy chief medical officer was at pains to stress the Conservative Party remained "fully committed to turning the tide" on childhood obesity.

Dr Gina Radford's case was not helped by the fact that she was appearing as a stand-in for Steve Brine MP, Minister of Public Health and Innovation Department of Health, who had withdrawn from the event, and the opportunity to underscore that commitment, at the last minute. 

Another challenge facing Dr Radford when speaking about the performance of the strategy in its first year is that, while it is well over a year since the action plan was launched, the first of the planned progress reports on the strategy is not being published until next March. 

Regular assessment of the strategy's progress, including crucially the performance of the food sector in meeting the 2020 sugar reduction targets they have been set, is a key element in the strategy which Dr Radford dubbed the "most ambitious child obesity plan in the world". The March report will be keenly awaited, particularly by campaigners determined to hold food companies' feet to the fire on reformulation believing too many concessions were made to industry in the final weeks before the strategy was launched.

However, Dr Radford said the huge amount of reformulation undertaken by the beverage sector in advance of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) coming into force in April 2018, provided early evidence of the strategy's effectiveness. She said it was "fantastic" that around 40% of the products that would have been subject to the levy had already been reformulated to bring them below the SDIL threshold. 

"Manufacturers are getting ahead of the game," Radford said, adding that it was also "really encouraging" to see the early strides being made on sugar reduction by food businesses. "We're seeing leading businesses already reducing sugar in their products in order to improve their offer to consumers, and this is exactly the sort of action we wanted to see."

Nevertheless, criticisms that the strategy failed to address critical aspects of the obesity issue around advertising and promotion were once again debated. While the Minister failed to show, Shadow Secretary of State for Health Jonathan Ashworth MP managed, in spite of the busy schedule in Parliament that had put paid to the Minister's attendance, to make it onto the platform, albeit 40 minutes late. 

Labour supporters would claim this underlines the party's stronger commitment to addressing the obesity issue. Whether or not this is the case, it is true there are notable differences between the parties on policy to tackle obesity, and those divergences are extremely relevant to food manufacturers. 

Ashworth said he did believe the obesity strategy had been "watered down" and should have been "much more radical" on advertising, and said if he were to become Secretary of State for Health he will "want it to go a lot further". While reiterating Labour's commitment in the recent general election campaign to extend the ban on junk food advertising from children's TV to general entertainment family programming, Ashworth told the audience he would look at expanding SDIL to cover sugary milkshakes, and would be "up for exploring" the possibility of extending the Levy to food products.

In its childhood obesity strategy, the Conservative Party stresses if the voluntary sugar reduction programme does not result in sufficient progress by 2020, it will "use other levers to achieve the same aims". Food industry lobbyists were nevertheless unlikely to be quaking in their boots. 
However, Ashworth now has a far better chance of becoming the next Secretary of State for Health than he did a year ago, and what Labour may consider in terms of regulatory or fiscal measures to tackle obesity will be creating rather more anxiety.

One issue not raised in the session was the possible impact recent food inflation might have on attempts to encourage healthier diets. Obesity and diet-related ill health are skewed towards lower-income groups, which in turn spend a higher percentage of their disposable income on food than higher socio-economic brackets. At the same time, healthier product variants and healthier foods in general tend to be more expensive than those with less healthy nutritional profiles. The danger rising food prices will make it more likely poorer food shoppers will seek out cheaper and less healthy products is significant.

Ashworth told just-food this is something policymakers have to be alive to. "We've obviously seen some food price inflation in recent months actually as a response to Brexit and what happened with the pound," he said to us after the session had ended. "And obviously that is another reason why the whole Brexit debate has to be managed in such a way as it doesn't damage the economy and doesn't push up the price of healthy foods in the shops. It's an important point and one that policymakers have got to be alert to."

Even prior to the food price spike, addressing the problem of better-for-you diets being harder for poorer households to achieve was a critical challenge. It is also one of the fundamental reasons why generalised reformulation of mainstream food products, rather than a reliance on better-for-you variants, is so important.