Ben Cooper reports from a UK conference on sugar this week and finds a shift in the tone of discussion from debate to action.

Having been the subject of unprecedented public and political debate in the UK during the first half of 2016, it is fair to say sugar consumption has been among the many issues eclipsed by the significant political events in the country of the last ten months, culminating in yet another surprise last week – the calling of a snap general election.

Food policy rarely features prominently in election campaigns, and this election, to be held on 8 June, will be no exception. However, sugar consumption was at least the topic of discussion for a morning yesterday (27 April), as politicians and campaigners, along with representatives from industry and public health, gathered at the Glaziers Hall in London, to attend a Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum keynote seminar on sugar reduction policy, looking specifically at reformulation, consumer choice and regulation.

Of course, Brexit did get a few mentions along the way. Duncan Stephenson, director of external affairs at the Royal Society for Public Health, said the UK’s departure from the EU was an opportunity for the country to set new paths in labelling. Meanwhile, Sue Davies, strategic policy advisor at consumer advice organisation Which?, said now is “a really interesting” time for food policy, with potential for review of the food regulatory framework and the “redesigning” of the UK’s food and farming policy as it exits the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Given all that has to happen in the EU-UK negotiations first, these are inevitably longer-term policy considerations. The focus of the conference – as it is for food companies – was on the next few years. 

The fevered campaigning and political discussion on sugar last year saw the announcement of a levy on sugary soft drinks (yet another political surprise) and, at long last, the launch of the government’s action plan on childhood obesity, including 2020 sugar reduction targets for food companies. 

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Understandably perhaps, given the focus there has been on sugar in recent years, yesterday’s seminar went over some old ground, but it was a good moment to hold a further discussion on sugar. Public Health England, the Government’s health advisory unit leading the sugar reduction programme, published its official reduction guidelines for industry, along with the 2015 baselines, last month. Meanwhile, the levy on soft drinks, announced last March and subsequently included in the government’s childhood obesity plan, was one of the pieces of legislation given priority by the UK government during the hurried “wash-up period” at the end of the prematurely curtailed Parliament. It will be introduced next April as planned.

At the conference, the merits and demerits of the UK government’s plan were debated along similar lines to how they have been since it was launched in August. Malcolm Clark, the co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign pressure group, pointed to the lack of measures relating to promotions, packaging or the use of tie-ins with film and TV characters. Meanwhile, Heather Peace, head of public health nutrition at Food Standards Scotland, said the agency is calling for regulation on promotions to be included in obesity plan yet to be framed by the devolved Scottish government.

Martin O’Connell, associate director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the soft drinks levy was “pretty well targeted”, but Chit Selvarajah, policy manager at charity Cancer Research UK, said the “exclusion of sugary milk-based drinks is certainly an issue, and that has to be closed”.

However, while campaigners believe the plan has some significant shortcomings, the tone of the debate appeared less adversarial than at some of the previous conferences on sugar held over recent years, probably because the plan is now in place and further policy changes, in England at any rate, are unlikely for several years. The emphasis is now on ensuring the measures are implemented effectively.

Industry, too, appears ready to focus on implementation. In response to the publication of the Public Health England guidelines, the Food and Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers operating in the UK, said the recommendations represent a “constructive platform on which to build a world-leading programme of voluntary sugars reduction”. It continued: “The guidelines are very stretching but manufacturers, for our part, are willing to take on the challenge.”

A recurring theme during the morning was the importance of a multi-stranded policy approach, which will be welcomed by industry representatives, always keen to push for solutions that do not focus on “demonising” specific foods or the companies that produce them. There was, as more than one speaker suggested, no “silver bullet”. 

Also of interest to food companies will be one or two pointers to the future. Among the possible new labelling directions highlighted by Stephenson was “activity-equivalence calorie labelling” where the caloric value of food is represented pictorially in terms of how much exercise it takes to burn it off. Tesco strategic advisor Tim Smith said he was “quite taken with the idea” of linking front-of-pack traffic lights labelling to exercise, which he suggested could increase its relevance to consumers.

There was also discussion of whether the levy should be extended to food products. Peace said the Food Standards Scotland board has “a very clear view the sugar tax should be extended beyond soft drinks”, suggesting industry may have some more lobbying to do to prevent Scotland’s obesity strategy from taking a harder line than that launched for England last year.

Encouragingly for food producers, Selvarajah was more measured. He said there were issues to address concerning the evidence base for extending the levy to foods as well as around the “practicality” of how such a tax would be structured. He said Cancer Research UK would “definitely encourage more research but I don’t think we’re in a position yet to advocate for it”. The IFS’ O’Connell said it would be useful to look at the impacts of the soft drinks levy and use that as potential evidence for extending it beyond sweetened soft drinks.

Looking to the immediate future, Sharon Hodgson MP, shadow minister for public health, who was chairing the first session, said the opposition Labour Party would seek to go further than the government on children’s health were Labour “lucky enough to win the election”. 

Hodgson’s choice of words would seem appropriate given where Labour stands in the opinion polls. Campaigners and public health professionals who hoped and advocated for stronger measures to tackle childhood obesity will not be holding their breath, possibly not even Clark at the Children’s Food Campaign, who is a Labour councillor. That said, the fact the Government ensured the passage of the legislation on the soft drinks levy before the end of this Parliament suggests a degree of commitment to its obesity plan. 

Campaigners can only hope that will be sustained in the extremely likely event that Theresa May returns as UK Prime Minister on 9 June. For industry, while the 2020 sugar reduction targets represent a tough challenge, food companies can be assured it would take a political upset even more shocking than the election of Donald Trump to return a UK government that would seek to add further regulatory burdens.