The food industry can help to address unhealthy diets, but the government must act to tackle the issue of inactive lifestyles, Unilever chairman Gavin Neath told the Annual Conference of the Federation of Bakers. Chris Lyddon reports.

The food industry can act to address the problem of unhealthy diets, but there is much more the government can and must do to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles and take more exercise. That was the message Unilever chairman Gavin Neath gave when he spoke at the Annual Conference of the Federation of Bakers in London.

“As a food industry, our role is to tackle diet while prompting the government to do something about dangerously inactive lifestyles,” said Neath, who is also president of the Food and Drink Federation. “Food is now more plentiful, more available and cheaper than at any time in our history,” he said. “The temptation to overconsume is greater.”

Neath said that the British were actually taking in fewer calories in 2005 than they had been in 1945, underlining just how critical the question of exercise is in the debate over rising obesity. “People are much less active,” he said. “There are two sides to the obesity question; diet and physical activity.”

He also pointed out that the food industry had worked closely with the Food Standards Agency on a range of issues, including salt intake. Salt in breakfast cereal had been reduced by 20% in three years, while there had been extensive efforts to minimise the levels of transfats.

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“The task now is for all of us to identify and implement solutions which get to the heart of these problems without getting involved in some of the emotion,” he said. “As a nation we are getting fat and unfit and are consuming twice the amount of salt that we should.”

He noted the bakers’ particular problems with salt. “The issue that preoccupies your industry most is unquestionably that of salt,” Neath said. The bread industry had been the first to move on salt, but Neath acknowledged that many in the sector felt they were being asked to do too much. “Many of you feel you’re coming up against technical constraints here,” he said. “The food standards agency and the Department of Health I think are right to focus on salt. Like it or not they will put pressure on us on salt.”

Regarding the Food Standard Agency’s traffic light labelling scheme, Neath noted that many people in the industry were supportive of the initiative. “The food standards agency scheme is in essence very close to the one used by Tesco,” he said. “The major difference is that the FSA would like us to colour red amber green. They believe low income, poorly educated consumers will be confused by the percentage GDAs that we as manufacturers propose to use.”

“Our conclusion about traffic lights is that they will drive the wrong consumer behaviour,” he said, pointing out that 54% fat margarine and 12% fat margarine would both get a red light. “The consumer will conclude there is no difference,” he said. “His nutritionist or his GP will of course tell him different.”

He accepted that the system had to be clear but added that, with education so central to tackling the obesity issue, the optimal system would be the one that was driving the right behaviour. “With food so cheap, so plentiful and so tempting the only way to address obesity is with education,” he said. “People need to understand the consequences of their choices.”

There was a need to instil good nutritional habits at an early age, which meant that as the provider of school meals the government had a duty to make sure they were doing the right thing for children’s diets.  “My advice is to be pragmatic,” he said. “Children will vote with their feet to if you go back to serving them braised liver and boiled cabbage.”

However, interestingly Neath said he believed the high profile, and generally much praised, work of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to improve the quality of school meals had backfired. “We already know that in the London Borough of Greenwich where Jamie Oliver did his work, the uptake of school meals has already gone down,” he said.

Mike Coupe, trading director at supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, identified a paradox in people’s attitudes to food. “Consumers are engaged with health but equally they buy very indulgent products,” he said. Some 63% of UK consumers had changed their behaviour in the last 12 months in an attempt to improve their health, yet more than 50% of the food products launched in the last year were indulgent, Coupe told the conference.

Coupe also said he believed people were not ready to pay a lot more for healthier products. “Customers will pay a premium for quality,” he said. “They won’t pay an outrageous premium.” Food retailing would always be a highly competitive business, he continued. “The deflationary pressures will always be there. I can’t see a situation where this market is any less competitive than it has been.”

Coupe also claimed that Sainsbury’s had spent more, at GBP17m, on sports equipment for schools than the government had, adding further weight to the contention held by many that the government needed to do more in terms of encouraging healthier, more active lifestyles.