The food industry has put itself at the heart of the UK government’s new Change4Life anti-obesity drive. Ben Cooper reports on what companies are aiming to contribute and the merits of a collaborative approach to tackling a pressing public health issue.

The engagement of business in public health is a contentious issue but the dual trends of public-private partnerships and ‘joined up’ government mean that the business community is more involved in government projects than ever before.

For the food industry this represents a significant opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to addressing the problem of rising obesity. Investment in corporate social responsibility programmes and better-for-you products has been ongoing for some time, but the scheme unveiled recently in the UK allows industry direct involvement in a coordinated, government-backed scheme.

The Change4Life initiative, which was announced by the Department of Health (DH) in the summer and fleshed out last week, is a multi-stranded programme with business involvement as a key plank.

The most substantial business element is represented by the Business4Life coalition, a group of some 33 food companies, retailers and media firms brought together under the auspices of the Advertising Association. Business4Life will contribute some GBP200m worth of advertising to the campaign. Meanwhile, individual food companies are also backing specific programmes. Kellogg is supporting the Breakfast4Life push, while PepsiCo is backing Play4Life.

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Also included in the Change4Life initiative is a link-up with the convenience store sector in the form of a drive to increase the number of c-stores in deprived areas offering fresh fruit and vegetables.

Shane Brennan of the Association of Convenience Stores told just-food he believed this programme not only offered a chance to improve the diets of c-store customers in those areas but also represented a business opportunity for independent retailers. He said the success smaller stores operated by the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s had seen with fresh fruit and vegetables showed how this can enhance a c-store’s offer, and the collaboration with government gave independent retailers, who may have previously been reluctant, an opportunity to experiment with fresh ranges.

Business4Life marketing director Jane Holdsworth sees the partnership with government as the key point of difference from many other CSR activities. “This is about genuine partnership,” Holdsworth tells just-food. “It’s about having one set of messages and one campaign.”

Julian Hunt, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), adds: “The strength in the Change4Life campaign is that the Department of Health has forged partnerships with a wide range of interested parties in the healthy lifestyle debate, bringing together industry, grassroots organisations, charities and government to create a social marketing platform on which some meaningful activity can take place to help the health of the nation.”

So far, two FDF members are involved in the scheme and Hunt says a number of others have expressed an interest.

Holdsworth also expects more companies to join in due course and played down the fact that there were some notable absentees from the launch, including Sainsbury’s. “Many companies are starting to look at this idea and we expect a lot more to come on board in the future so I wouldn’t really read anything in particular into the fact that names aren’t there yet,” Holdsworth says.

While much attention has been paid to the GBP200m of in-kind funding, Holdsworth stresses other advantages this partnership offers. “If through some of the big brands or big media owners you are able to actually reach people at a point when they listen that’s a very powerful thing. One of the big pluses of the coalition that we’ve put together is that you’ve got an absolute wealth of talent there who know how to communicate, who know how to reach consumers and influence their behaviour. Having that kind of power behind a government campaign and delivering the same kind of messages is a really new initiative and I think a tremendously exciting one.”

Trevor Gorin, global media relations director at Unilever, one of the participating food companies, believes there is evidence that business involvement in public health campaigns can be effective. “World Health Organisation evidence of successful national and regional public health campaigns, such as the work done in Finland since the early 1970s, shows that success is best achieved in multi-stakeholder voluntary initiatives,” says Gorin. “We hope it will help equip consumers with the right information and motivation to make positive changes to their lifestyles.”

However, this collaboration with the food industry has been greeted sceptically by some campaigners. Jeanette Longfield of the sustainable food and agriculture pressure group, Sustain, believes there have not been stringent enough entry criteria for companies participating in the scheme. “If you don’t have any criteria for entry you completely debase the currency,” says Longfield, adding that a company’s record on marketing to children and adoption of the ‘traffic lights’ nutritional labelling system should be basic requirements. “Rich big companies have bullied the Government, and the Government is blinded by the cash, or at least the promise of cash or cash equivalent,” Longfield adds.

Richard Watts, coordinator for the Children’s Food Campaign, says there is a “significant danger” of the Change4Life logo being bolted on to existing CSR commitments without the Government ensuring additional commitments for inclusion in a high-profile Government-backed campaign. He believes it would not be difficult for the Government to gather data on advertising and products as a guide to a company’s commitment, set benchmark requirements and monitor progress.

When contacted by just-food, a DH spokesperson clarified the entry requirements for companies and the monitoring that would be conducted. He said that all the companies must commit to publicly support the aims of the campaign; to carry messaging around diet and activity; to contribute to behavioural change; to undertake incremental activity; and to use the Change4Life branding in certain specified ways. He added that the companies’ activities would be audited against these criteria.

“The intention is very much to monitor everything that is done,” Holdsworth adds. “And certainly the discussions we’ve had with the DH are around doing that.”

Some campaign groups have been more positive. Diabetes UK, for example, said it welcomed “any initiative that promotes physical activity, a healthier diet and that raises awareness of the serious implications of a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet”.

And even the more sceptical campaigners acknowledge that this initiative is at an extremely early stage. Holdsworth expects more industry stakeholders to join the scheme over time and the programme itself is likely to evolve over the coming few years. What is clear is that industry will be involved, and will be expected to play its part, in that evolution.