No major UK dairy producer signed up to the countrys new front-of-pack labelling scheme this summer

No major UK dairy producer signed up to the country's new front-of-pack labelling scheme this summer

As action on saturated fat was making headlines across business and national media in the UK over the last 72 hours, a senior executive in a sector often at the centre of this particular debate - dairy - was warning of the "challenges" it faces on diet and nutrition issues. 

Speaking at the World Dairy Summit in Japan, Dr Judith Bryans, chief executive of UK industry body Dairy UK, said the sector "faces more threats to the nutritional image of its products than ever before".

Dr Bryans told delegates: "In today's world, rates of chronic disease are on the rise. At the same time the burden of malnutrition is increasing. Addressing these extremes is placing a huge burden on national healthcare systems as well as having a huge impact on the quality of life of those individuals who are affected.

"As a result regulators are looking for quick simple ways to meet public health targets. All too often this results in over simplistic messaging and initiatives based on single nutrients and in some cases, the use of outdated science by both public health authorities and NGOs."

The speech came as the industry, health professionals and campaigners and the wider public were digesting the news manufacturers in the UK had pledged to lower the saturated fat in certain products, including Nestle's Kit Kat chocolate and Mondelez International's Oreo biscuits.

As reported on just-food yesterday, the moves have met with some criticism in campaign circles. 

The Responsibility Deal, the process through which the UK government is working with food companies and other stakeholders on dietary health issues, has again been called into question, while some argue the focus should have been placed on sugar.

Speaking to just-food, Alan Maryon-Davis, Honorary Professor of Public Health at the Department of Primary Care & Public Health Sciences at Kings College in London, said the pledges were "dressed up to look like a massive amount of saturated fat being taken out of the food chain" but represented a "very small proportion" of total fat intake. He also observed the pledges were not "hitting where the main bulk of saturated fat intake is", such as ready meals - and dairy.

The dairy sector's position in the diet and health debate is delicate to say the least and it has a difficult case to make, particularly as the arguments can be over-simplified. However, the sector has come under the spotlight in recent months, not least when no major dairy firms signed up to the UK front-of-pack labelling scheme announced this summer.

That no major dairy firms are participating in the programme, which includes traffic light labels and so-called "reference intakes" of nutrients, because companies in the sector think it demonises their products, does not give out a very good message.

In July, Professor Maryon-Davis spoke at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum on food labelling policy, coincidentally sharing a platform with Dr Bryans.

The event was held just days after the new front-of-pack labelling scheme was unveiled and, during his presentation, he stressed the importance of traffic light colours allowing people quickly to balance their diets. He stressed this does not mean cutting out products labelled with red traffic lights (as dairy products would often be) altogether.

That thinking stands up pretty well. If you limit your products with red lights, clearly that does not mean you should adopt the same approach to a pint of milk as you should to a Kit Kat, which contains 49.5% sugar. However, given both bear the red dot, it is understandable why dairy producers worry about their products being demonised. 

As Dr Bryans told the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum in July: "It's very, very hard when we produce foods that have a whole plethora of nutrients to just see a scheme which highlights perceived negatives because that doesn't really represent the whole food or where it fits in the diet." 

However, people do need a quick reference - and relatively simple messages. Dairy is simply a casualty of this but that does not mean the system is wrong. Perhaps dairy just needs to get better at putting over its positive nutritional attributes rather than railing against a system which has its merits.

It could be argued that there are some indulgent, high-fat products in the dairy sector that are every bit as deserving of a 'red for danger' light as a bar of chocolate - high-fat and aged cheeses often have masses of salt in them, too.

With the Responsibility Deal pledge to reduce saturated fat, the scrutiny on the dairy industry will intensify. Unilever, which did not sign up to the front-of-pack labelling scheme in June, is one of the signatories to the sat fat pledge, insisting it will invest in "healthier" spreads and encourage consumers to cook with products offering "lower saturated fat alternatives".

On the issue of sat fat and reformulation, the dairy sector may argue it has just about taken as much fat out of their products that they can. That may be true for some products but not for all and is the dairy sector perhaps doing enough to promote lower-fat options?

At the World Dairy Summit, Dr Bryans was again stressing that the full nutritional value of dairy products needs to be taken into account.

"This over emphasis on single nutrients fails to recognise that people eat foods and that they eat these foods as part of a dietary pattern - and this presents the dairy industry not with problems but with opportunities," she said.

"We must take the opportunity to promote our credentials as a nutrient rich food integral to a sustainable diet. We have the opportunity to innovate for health and develop products which address the specific needs of different age groups. All of this must be based on strong scientific evidence."

She said the International Dairy Federation, the global industry association for the sector, had "a big part to play in helping the dairy industry ensure that it is at the forefront of developing and sharing the latest scientific information on dairy related nutrition, disseminating information and engaging in active advocacy".

The UK pledges on saturated fat, however, only emphasise the work ahead for the sector.