As the debate over rising obesity levels continues to intensify, pressure groups have become key stakeholders whose opinions the industry cannot afford to ignore. For this month’s Just the Answer interview, Ben Cooper spoke with Richard Watts, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, about the campaign and its reaction to the UK government’s anti-obesity strategy announced last week.

just-food: How would you summarise the work and mission of the Children’s Food Campaign? Why do you believe we need it?

Watts: The Children’s Food Campaign is a coalition of about 300 organisations, formed by Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, who have come together to get kids a better diet. We are concerned with four issues. The first is food advertising and marketing, the second is to improve food labelling, the third is trying to get cooking as a compulsory part of the National Curriculum and fourth is the continuing work to improve food in schools.

The reason we need it is because children’s dietary health is in crisis. The National Diet and Nutritional Survey found that 93% of children had too much saturated fat in their diet, the vast majority had too much sugar and salt, and 96% didn’t get enough fruit and veg.

j-f: What is your reaction to the UK government’s anti-obesity strategy announced last week?  Which elements in the strategy do you actively welcome?

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Watts: We welcome the strategy. It does have a range of good ideas in it. We think it is vital we have an easy-to-understand system of food labelling, and a lot of the other ideas in the strategy are good ones, like encouraging people to get fit in work.

Although we don’t work on physical activity issues, of course we welcome the initiative to get people to do more exercise. But we are not going to solve the obesity crisis unless you improve people’s diets; it’s not an ‘either or’ situation. It’s plain wrong to present it as that.

j-f: The Government decided not to impose a 9pm watershed for TV advertising of HFSS foods but instead brought forward the Ofcom review of this issue. What was your reaction to this element of the strategy?

Watts: We were very disappointed indeed in the references to advertising and marketing, which left a gaping whole in the strategy.

Ofcom have said throughout that they are a broadcast regulator not a health regulator, and unless the Government gives Ofcom a different frame of reference, all Ofcom will say is that their current regulations are working against the very limited criteria for success they already set themselves.

The Government has said it is going to be spending tens of millions promoting health and healthy eating. If the industry is still spending hundreds of millions promoting unhealthy eating, the Government’s efforts are going to be fatally undermined.

Richard Watts, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign

j-f: Labelling is another hotly debated issue in the UK and elsewhere. How do you see the launch of the strategy impacting on the debate?

Watts: I think the Government does seem determined to push for a single labelling system, which is after all the thing that the public are most clear that they want.

j-f: With opinion divided between a GDA (guideline daily amount) system and the ‘traffic lights’ system, do you believe there is scope for a system which combines the two, along the lines of that adopted by Asda?

Watts: The key is colour coding because it is colour coding that gives the consumer the ‘at-a-glance’ information they need to make purchases. 

So we are pretty relaxed about a combined system, as long as the ground rules for the format of the system are based on science. If that is what it takes to get colour-coding so be it. Whenever I have suggested the combined system to supporters of the GDA system they have always rejected it.

j-f: Would you like to see EU-wide legislation on this issue?

Watts: We would very much like to see EU-wide legislation as long as it is the right legislation. Public interest groups have found it even more difficult to influence the EU than national governments and we are not very hopeful that the EU will come up with proposals on labelling that put public health first. We understand that they are going to recommend a GDA system despite the evidence showing that ‘traffic lights’ is more effective.

j-f: Campaigning groups such as yours are often seen to be in direct conflict with industry. Do you believe the industry should be involved in developing and implementing strategies? Are you prepared as an organisation to cooperate with industry groups and companies in a multi-stakeholder approach to the problems?

Watts: We’re of course ready to work with anyone who has children’s health at heart. However, all the serious public health groups in this field have lost confidence that the industry is genuinely interested in improving children’s health as opposed to protecting their profits. For us, the key is working with organisations whose priority is children’s health, and we have seen no evidence at all that industry is prepared to take a short-term relatively small hit in its profits in order to protect children’s health and, actually, the long-term interests of the food industry as well.

j-f: Your organisation works primarily in the UK. From your collaborative work with peer organisations elsewhere do you believe the UK is in a worse position than other developed markets?

Watts: The position on children’s diet and health in the UK is clearly among the worst in the developed world. Although the public health lobby in the UK is the strongest anywhere in the world and we are further down the road towards stronger legislation than any other European country, the two things are linked. The reason we have been more successful than elsewhere is because the scale of the problem is so obvious.

The media’s interest stems from interest from their readers because parents are concerned about their children’s health. And media interest is the most effective tool at the disposal of public interest groups.

j-f: In general terms, what does the Children’s Food Campaign need and expect food companies to do in the fight against obesity? How would you evaluate the industry’s current contribution to the solution?

Watts: The big thing is that the industry needs to recognise that the priority is children’s health. Industry has failed to see the big picture. They give the impression of desperately scrambling to save commercial freedoms so that they can continue to promote unhealthy food to children, while forgetting that their long-term interests and the national long-term interests are both based on improving the health of the nation.

Industry has talked a good game about partnership but has never yet done anything that will actually affect the sales of unhealthy food, and unless you get people buying less HFSS the obesity crisis will continue. We’re not anti-food-industry but the food industry has its priorities wrong, and is still putting short-term commercial interests ahead of children’s health.