The long-awaited – and delayed – strategy to combat child obesity in England has been released by the UK’s Department of Health today (18 August). The Government expressed “confidence” its measures would reduce the number of children who are obese. Industry criticised a voluntary target to reduce sugar and the reception from campaigning circles was mostly negative. Here’s a flavour of the reaction.

15:37 UK medical professionals hit out at plan

Parveen Kumar, the chair of the British Medical Association’s board of science, argues the Government has “announced a weak plan rather than the robust strategy it promised”, echoing claims by some critics the plan as published is a watered down version of what had been hinted at under former Prime Minister David Cameron.

“Although the Government proposes targets for food companies to reduce the level of sugar in their products, the fact that these are voluntary and not backed up by regulation, renders them pointless,” Prof. Kumar said.

14:25 Public Health England surfaces

No sign of any official comment today from Public Health England, the UK government’s executive agency for health policy in England – and the agency that has seen some of its recommendations ignored in the plan of action.

However, on its Twitter feed, PHE is plugging the benefit of exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.

13:31 Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe wants more action

Some interesting comments from Mike Coupe, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, the UK’s number three grocer have come in.

“This is a welcome first step, but we need a holistic approach to tackle childhood obesity, including compulsory measured targets across all nutrients – not just sugar – and mandatory traffic light labelling across all food and drink products, regardless of whether they are consumed inside or outside the home,” Coupe said.

The Sainsbury’s boss then went on to talk about what the retailer has done – including reformulation work, removal of “multi-buy” promotions – but his remarks are a change of tone from the thrust of what we have seen from the food industry.

The target to reduce sugar by 20% in five years is a voluntary one and has provoked the scorn of some health campaigners. The UK’s traffic light labels are also voluntary and there were some notable absentees from the list of manufacturers that signed up to the scheme when that was announced in 2013.

13:24 A manufacturer? Need advice on how to lower sugar? The FDF has tips

The Food and Drink Federation has already criticised the Government’s target on sugar reduction, labelling it “flawed” but this afternoon the association has pointed to recent advice on how manufacturers can lower the amount of the ingredient in the products.

13:20 Reaction from consumer advocates in Europe

The policy officer at BEUC, the European consumer advocacy group, has believes there should be a tougher line on marketing.

12:32 Gold for Tesco’s Twitter team

The bods behind Tesco’s Twitter feed have sought to flag how the retail giant helps its shoppers live “a healthier life”.

12:22 The Soil Association says schools should be at heart of plan

“Following disappointment that the long awaited Childhood Obesity Strategy did not include two key measures recommended by Public Health England around banning junk food advertising and price promotions, it is now imperative that the government demonstrate their commitment to children’s health through urgent and decisive action around other areas of the strategy,” the organic certification body posts on its website.

“The plan for action states schools are a ‘vital part of their plan’ and have the opportunity to ‘support healthier eating, physical activity and shape healthy habits.’
In order that they can achieve this, we believe that the government must do the following:

– Swiftly and clearly define the proposed ‘healthy rating scheme’ as well as ensuring that it draws on the knowledge and expertise of existing schemes like Food for Life so that criteria are evidence-based and have a track record of being achievable in a school environment.

– Not just ‘encourage’, but make the School Food Standards mandatory for all schools and monitor their implementation.

– Guarantee long-term funding for existing initiatives like UIFSM and review actions that compromise their potential to succeed, such as the removal of the small schools support grant.

– Make the most of opportunity to embed good food behaviours in a pre-school environment by ensuring that food provision is fully funded as part of the proposed 30 hours free childcare for 3-4 year olds.

– Ensure that Ofsted inspectors are properly equipped to evaluate how schools are promoting and supporting pupil’s knowledge of how to keep themselves healthy.

11:36 UK dairy processors sour on yogurt

Dairy UK, the industry body for the country’s processors, seeks to defend yogurt. The Government included yogurt as one of nine categories on which the sugar-reduction programme would initially be focused, alongside the likes of breakfast cereals, cakes and biscuits.

“It is a shame to see yogurt portrayed in a negative light again,” Dr. Judith Bryans, Dairy UK’s chief executive, says. “According to National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) data used by both the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and Public Health England itself in its call for evidence, the category including yogurt, fromage frais and dairy desserts only accounts for 6% of added sugar intake for children aged four to ten, against 14% for sugar and chocolate confectionery and 9% for cakes and pastries. Yet this strategy brings yogurt to the fore when it should be at the bottom of list. Yogurt is a nutrient-rich food and contains many other nutrients, not just sugar.”

Dr Bryans also wants to make sure the reformulation targets apply to imported products. “We will seek urgent clarification on whether these new reformulation targets will apply to imported products as well as domestic products. The question of whether consumers are willing to accept changes in the taste of their favourite products is an important factor when reformulating food products. We need a level playing field for both domestic and imported products lest consumers abandon domestic products in favour of imported products, which would defeat the purpose of the strategy and penalise the UK industry,” she says.

It would be a surprise if they did not.

10:04 Scotland’s public sector body for food expresses disappointment

With health a devolved issue in the UK, today’s announcement is directed at tackling child obesity in England – although the soft drinks levy will be rolled out across the UK.

Food Standards Scotland, the public sector food body for Scotland, also points out other parts of the plan will affect Scotland and argues the strategy does not go far enough.

“Whilst the Strategy sets out plans for England, it rules out some measures such as advertising restrictions which are reserved, meaning they have an impact in Scotland,” Food Standards Scotland said.

The body said there had been “no discussion” between the UK government and Scotland before today’s plan of action was announced, which it said was “disappointing” as there are “clear benefits that could be achieved with a UK-wide approach to tackling obesity through advertising and marketing”.

Food Standards Scotland added: “In January, the FSS Board recommended a package of measures to Scottish Ministers with proposals including fiscal measures and regulation around food and drink promotions, if the food industry cannot achieve effective change by voluntary means. Portion size reduction and tougher targets for reformulation of foods and drinks were also recommended.”

09:45 Ella’s Kitchen founder Paul Lindley unimpressed

Paul Lindley, the man who set up the now Hain Celestial-owned baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen, says the Government’s plans have fallen short of what was needed.

08:36 UK Department of Health tweets full report

While Ellison is on the BBC, the UK’s Department of Health issues a link to the full “plan for action”.

You can read our news story on the plan here.

08:35 Conservative minister Jane Ellison speaks to the BBC

With UK Prime Minister Theresa May on holiday, it falls to Jane Ellison, financial secretary to the Treasury, to appear on the airwaves this morning. May appointed Ellison to the role in July; Ellison was previously a public health minister and was part of the team to have drawn up the strategy.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme, Ellison says: “Right at the heart of the plan are some of the most effective measures recommended to us by experts. Last year, Public Health England produced a piece of research telling us what were the most effective things we could do to part bear down on the sugar intake of children and right at the top of that list was a huge reformulation programme tackling the sugar in the foods children eat the most. That is the policy right at the heart of this plan, alongside the soft drinks industry levy. Taking those two things together that is the most ambitious programme of reformulation that any developed country has taken.”

Last October, executive agency Public Health England called for a range of measures to help the lower amount of sugar eaten in the country. Among the recommendations were a tax of up to 20% on “high-sugar” products, cutting the number of promotions and introducing more restrictions on advertising.

It was put to Ellison that the Government’s measures fall short of Public Health England’s recommendations on advertising and promotions.

“There are very tough restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy food in children’s programming, on children’s channels. It isn’t a free-for-all. We have some of the toughest restrictions in the world. We’ve looked at a range of policies but, right at the heart of all of them, is that the food that we eat, particularly that children eat, contains too much hidden sugar. Public Health England’s number one recommendation was about changing the food children eat at source with a big ask of manufacturers,” Ellison insisted. “One of the problems of having at the heart of plan this reformulation strategy is, let’s be honest, it is quite technical, not as iconic as talking about everyday things that everyone understands around advertising. But it is nonetheless the thing that every expert, not just in this country, but around the world recommends as the most effective and it feeds through into everything else, into advertising and into promotions. There are going to be changes anyway on advertising coming through because the Government is changing the nutrient profile to which advertisers have to work.”

“It’s also important to say this is the beginning, not the end of a conversation. The childhood obesity crisis in this country has been decades in the making. There is no silver bullet, there is no overnight solution. This is the beginning of a strong, steady, consistent plan.”

08:23 UK public health minister Nicola Blackwood defends strategy

In a post on the website, Blackwood describes the Government’s plans as “a sensible plan to make children healthier”.

“This is a complex problem and there is no silver bullet solution. It requires concerted and co-ordinated effort from schools, communities, families and individuals – as well as central and local Government. I am confident our plan will help to deliver this, at the same time as respecting consumer choice and economic realities,” Blackwood.

With many conservatives rarely fans of government intervention on an issue they could deem to be about personal responsibility, Blackwood then goes on to write: “There is nothing nanny state about trying to make healthy choices more available and desirable to boost the life chances of most disadvantaged children. But as Conservatives, we recognise that there is an important balance to be struck between state regulation and individual responsibility.”

08:15 Leading UK public health academic Professor Tim Lang gives his reaction

Prof. Lang calls for tougher restrictions on advertising.

06:47 Celebrity chef and health campaigner Jamie Oliver is unhappy

00:15 Senior Conservative MP, Dr. Sarah Wollaston, criticises strategy

Just after midnight, Dr. Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health Select Committee in the House of Commons, the UK’s lower house, tweeted her verdict on the yet-to-be-formally-unveiled strategy document.

There was a swift reaction on Twitter from the Children’s Food Campaign, which lobbies on children’s health issues.

00:01 Industry and campaigners speak ahead of expected strategy announcement

Embargoed statements from industry and campaigners started rolling in late yesterday (17 August) afternoon, suggesting the publication of the childhood obesity strategy for England – health is a policy area that is devolved in the UK – was imminent. The story featured heavily in the night-time TV news bulletins of major broadcasters as the country geared up for what appeared set to be an official announcement this morning.

The Food and Drink Federation, the industry association representing food and soft drink manufacturers, in the UK is critical about two of the expected principal strategies.

The proposed tax on soft drinks is a disappointing diversion from effective measures to tackle obesity. Soft drink companies are already making great progress to reduce sugars from their products, having achieved a 16% reduction between 2012 and 2016. Indeed, many individual manufacturers have a proud track record of reformulation to remove salt, fat and sugar from food and drinks and this work will continue,” Ian Wright, the director-general of the FDF, says.

“However the target set for sugars reduction in the plan is flawed. It focuses too strongly on the role of this single nutrient, when obesity is caused by excess calories from any nutrient. Moreover the target is unlikely to be technically practical across all the selected food categories. Reformulation is difficult and costly: there are different challenges for each product; recipe change can only proceed at a pace dictated by consumers. We will of course do everything we can in the next six months to work towards a practicable reformulation solution while continuing to urge the Government to adopt a ‘whole diet’ approach.”

Action on Sugar, a UK-based group lobbying on health issues, reprimanded the country’s government, comparing the plans to the Public Health Responsibility Deal, which placed emphasis on voluntary action by the private sector to encourage the changes in lifestyle necessary to achieve preventive health objectives.

After the farce of the Responsibility Deal where [former UK Health Secretary] Andrew Lansley made the food industry responsible for policing themselves, it is sad to see that this is just another imitation of the same Responsibility Deal take two,” Action on Sugar chairman Professor Graham MacGregor said. “It is an insulting response to the UK crisis in obesity type 2 diabetes both in children and adults. This will bankrupt the NHS unless something radical is done.”