When the UK government published its long-awaited plan to tackle childhood obesity in August, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents UK food manufacturers, seemed less than impressed, criticising the decision to go ahead with the soft drinks levy as “a disappointing diversion” from effective measures and the plan’s sugar reduction targets as “flawed”.

However, in a recent interview with just-food, FDF director general Ian Wright struck a more positive note, describing the government’s response to the obesity crisis as “relatively well modulated”.

Wright also noted what he perceives as a more collaborative stance being taken by Public Health England (PHE), the government’s health advisory unit leading the sugar reduction programme that is a cornerstone of the strategy.  “I have to say the tone has changed completely,” Wright told just-food. “The tone is massively more collaborative. Our relationships with PHE are very cordial and you would never recognise it from the summer of last year.”

The ready cooperation of food companies in driving down the levels of sugar in processed foods is vital to the effectiveness of the strategy. While health campaigners have complained the targets set out in the strategy do not push industry hard enough, the FDF said in August the target was “unlikely to be technically practical across all the selected food categories” and also criticised the focus on sugar as a single nutrient of concern. 

The strategy states all sectors of the food and drinks industry “will be challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one”. It states this can be achieved through reduction of sugar levels in products, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives. 

While positive about how PHE was engaging with the industry, Wright reiterated concerns about the practical challenges involved, emphasising in particular the need for greater clarity regarding how changes to product mix and portion size will be evaluated.

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To illustrate the nuances in this regard, the FDF cites the example of a company aiming to switch consumers from a chocolate bar to a biscuit, asking whether this would be recognised as an action to be encouraged, or as bad practice as it is upselling biscuits.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with PHE and are pleased they are actively seeking a wide range of stakeholder views, including the out of home sector, to inform the final targets,” Wright added. “Nonetheless, we have concerns that the target of 20% across all categories is not achievable.” 

Wright noted that the UK’s salt reduction campaign, in which voluntary reformulation by food companies also played a pivotal role and which was “seen as world leading and simpler to achieve than a sugars reduction”, achieved only an 11% reduction over nine years between 2005 and 2014. “We are worried that despite hard work and considerable investment from industry at the end of the process it will be deemed by critics to have failed.”

The programme will initially focus on the nine categories that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes, namely breakfast cereals, yogurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods such as pastries, puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads.

Earlier in August, the FDF published a free reformulation guide for small and medium-sized food manufacturers, prepared on behalf of the organisation by Leatherhead Food Research, offering SMEs advice on adapting formulations to reduce sugar levels while retaining the taste, texture and mouthfeel properties consumers want.

Following the result of the EU referendum in June, the FDF called on the government to pause its plans for a soft drinks levy, suggesting the initiative represented a “burden on business” at a time of economic uncertainty. Campaigners, on the other hand, believe a levy should be applied to sugary products more generally. While the FDF has failed to persuade the government to halt its plans for a soft drinks levy, Wright is confident the measure will not be extended to any food products. “It’s not going to happen, not now anyway,” he said.

Click here for part one of our interview with FDF director general Ian Wright in which he said the UK food and drink industry is “disproportionately impacted” by Brexit.

In the second part of his interview with just-food, FDF director general Ian Wright gives his views on the longer term implications of Brexit for UK food and farming policy and for the UK food industry’s labour force.