A year after the health White Paper we now have Jamie’s School Dinners and Sid the Slug, but have we made any real progress in tackling obesity? Helen Lewis reports.

The food industry is a victim of its own success according to Unilever UK’s chairman Gavin Neath: “Food is now more plentiful, available and cheaper than at any other time, so the temptation to over-consume is great”.

The problem of “over-nutrition,” as Neath calls it, was addressed by last year’s ‘Choosing Health’ White Paper, which has since made health the priority in every food and drinks company across the country. A year after publication, the White Paper continues to court controversy.

On 22 November 2005, The Grocer in association with Evershed brought the likes of PepsiCo, Cadbury Trebor Schweppes and Arla Foods face-to-face with the government to commend the past year’s progress and debate the next steps in tackling the growing – and widely reported – obesity dilemma.

Being so deeply entrenched in the industry, it is all too easy to forget just how far we have come in the past year. Caroline Flint, parliamentary under secretary of state for public health, opened the seminar on a positive note: “I am encouraged by the overall industry’s response and the increased level of public awareness of issues such as the 6g of salt”, she commented.

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Opening dialogue between government and industry

Flint, Neath and Julia Unwin, deputy chair at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), all agree that the open dialogue between the industry and the government was a hugely successful outcome of the White Paper and a necessary step to ensure that everyone’s very individual opinions are heard.

A year ago, not only did there appear to be a turf war between the FSA and the Department of Health in relation to the ownership of ‘nutrition’ but the voices of industry and government were divided. Flint admitted: “The dialogue has improved, but we could all work harder”.

Indeed, it wasn’t long before discussions turned to the many challenges and a certain degree of finger pointing began. While the industry is happy to seek direction and fall in line with the government’s lead on subjects such as school dinners, front-of-pack labelling and advertising to children are entirely different matters.

Industry wants GDA not Traffic Light labelling

Whether the industry should adopt Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) or Traffic Light front-of-pack labelling was the most contentious conversation topic of the seminar. In just 12 weeks the FSA will encourage the industry to adhere to its final decision and Unwin made it clear that the FSA – with its mantra of “make the healthy choice the easy choice” – currently favours the traffic lights.

Industry representatives, who expressed support for the GDA system, reiterated the word ‘voluntary’ and talked of fears of “naming and shaming” for those companies that did not follow the final decision. Unilever’s Neath criticised the government for coming into the issue “a little late”, explaining that the food industry has already done the hard work to develop GDA for the back-of-pack. Neath added: “The aim is to empower consumers to make an informed decision but traffic lights is the dumbed down route, which delivers virtually no information for an informed choice”.

Sainsbury’s brand director Judith Batchelar proudly showed off the ‘Wheel of Health’ launched in January 2005, which uses red, amber and green to highlight the levels of fat, saturated fat, salt, calories and added sugars.

Andrew Opie, food policy director at the British Retail Consortium, explained that he did not intend to “get hung up on what the front-of-pack label should be”. He said: “Labelling from different retailers is tailored to their group of consumers. We already know that the bulk of consumers shop in the same place every week”.

Mixed messages prevail

It was agreed that avoiding mixed messages, which promote consumer confusion, is a fundamental requirement for any government campaign tackling obesity, yet the labelling puzzle continues to prove problematic.

Unwin repeatedly stated that feedback was invited over the next three months but the FSA hoped the industry would voluntarily support the final outcome. With increasing investment by the major multiples and some manufacturers to develop a proprietary labelling system before a final decision is made the likelihood of change is diminishing. Batchelar confirmed that by January 2006, 800 Sainsbury’s products would carry the Wheel of Health – ahead of the FSA’s decision.

FSA’s nutritional profiling criticised in children’s advertising debate

When it comes to advertising to children, the industry – according to Neath – appears to be coming round to the inevitable steps of accepting some “rationing, examining individual company self-regulatory codes such as character licensing or the use of celebrities” and there is even consideration of a total advertising ban to children under six years old and during peak children’s television hours.

Fierce disparagement, however, centred on the FSA’s nutritional profiling, designed to support Ofcom’s work to consider possible restrictions to the advertising and promotion to children of foods high in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar. It utilises a ‘simple scoring’ system that rates the overall balance of nutrients in food, so products can be classified by their overall score.

Burgers or bran flakes?

Criticisms voiced at the seminar included flawed science, bending rules for certain foods and the use of 100g as the average portion size for all categories. Jeremy Preston, director of the Food Advertising Unit, explained: “Some beef burgers have been found to be healthier than bran flakes, although the British Heart Foundation has spent GBP2m (US$3.44m) on a campaign advising people not to eat burgers and the like. This is causing confusion”.

This confusion apparently stems directly from the nutritional profiling model, which uses a 100g portion size to compare all foods. As Preston pointed out: “The cereal industry would love people to eat that much, but they don’t, they eat about 30g a portion”.

Anti-obesity campaign to launch in mid-2006

Among the confusion, controversy and criticisms, everyone in the room did agree on the need for a single, simple campaign that would achieve the following:

  • Motivate people
  • Inform and empower consumers
  • Minimise confusion
  • Target the individual by working across a variety of marketing platforms
  • Bring all the campaigns, such as Sid the Slug and Five-A-Day, under one umbrella
  • Increase responsibility for the individual – as Joanne Denny-Finch, chief executive at IGD, pointed out: “There is a danger that some consumers will absolve all responsibility and over-rely on the industry to provide solutions [to obesity and ill health] through scientific developments”.
  • Not preach or lecture
  • Support people so they don’t feel like they have failed if they don’t eat healthily every day
  • Be positive

Flint confirmed the government plans to roll out an anti-obesity campaign in mid-2006 following lengthy discussions with industry representatives over the past 18 months. FSA’s Unwin recognised that: “One size does not fit all” and the industry was praised for its individual company efforts. However, according to Flint the aim of the White Paper and the imminent campaign is to: “Help people understand what makes a healthy diet”. There is a broad consensus that the campaign would need a mantra, such as ‘Eat Well, Drink Well, Live Well’. Flint explained: “We need a message that says ‘we’re on your side’. It’s about making connections so people understand it’s about what we eat and what we do in terms of exercise and lifestyle choices”.

Actions speak louder than words

A lot of questions remain unanswered following the first anniversary seminar of the ‘Choosing Health’ White Paper and with the 2007 deadline looming there is increased pressure for action, rather than words. The industry and the government have already made considerable progress in educating consumers about issues such as salt and (thanks to Jamie Oliver) school dinners. The next step is to identify an effective all-singing, all-dancing awareness campaign. Yet, the problem remains that we are just not sure what that message should be or how to prioritise the many issues influencing eating habits today.

As Flint said: “Answers on a postcard to the Department of Health”.