The food industry may feel aggrieved by the UK government’s tough stance on school food but it can hardly be surprised. Legislation like this has been coming for a while, writes Chris Brook-Carter, and rather than complaining about being made scapegoats, food companies must do more to convince the authorities that they can be part of the solution.

So how should we look upon the overhaul of school food in the UK, announced last week? Enlightened legislation with only the wellbeing of our children at heart? Or another draconian example of a nanny-state’s desire to control everything we do by limiting our rights to choose?

I doubt anyone will raise an objection to the efforts to improve the nutritional standards of school meals. As Food and Drink Federation director general Melanie Leech said: “The UK food and drink manufacturing industry fully supports the Government’s drive to improve the standards of school meals, and played a constructive part in the school food consultation process.”

However, she added: “FDF regrets that the standards ban certain foods from being vended in schools. Positive actions are always more effective than prescription.”

Banning foods and limiting choice like this will do little to persuade children to stop eating crisps and chocolate bars – they will merely go outside of school to get them. Once again, the food industry is made the scapegoat for the current obesity crisis, when a more balanced approach, involving education, diet and exercise, would have been more fruitful.

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As Unilever chairman Gavin Neath told the Annual Conference of the Federation of Bakers last week, 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.

“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.
Although the food industry may feel aggrieved by the legislation, it can ill afford to feel sorry for itself. Legislation such as this has been a long time coming and too few food groups – for all their rhetoric – are doing enough globally to convince authorities that they can be responsible partners in the debate.

As a recent industry briefing by just-food pointed out, according to researchers from City University in London, the world’s top 25 food companies are still not doing enough to tackle obesity and other health-related issues.

The university analysed the top ten food manufacturers, top ten food retailers and top five foodservice companies. According to Professor Tim Lang, one of the report’s authors: “Their performance is by and large pathetic.”

The report, which analysed company annual reports and statements to autumn 2005, found that only six out of the 25 companies reported that they have a board member or senior personnel responsible for health-related matters; Cadbury Schweppes, Kraft, Nestlé, Ahold, McDonald’s and Yum!.

Meanwhile, only four out of 25 companies had any policies on advertising, and all of them were manufacturers; Cadbury Schweppes, Danone, Nestlé and Unilever.

Meanwhile, in terms of NPD, only ten out of 25 companies reported action on salt levels; Cadbury Schweppes, ConAgra, Kraft, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Ahold, Carrefour, Tesco and Compass. Five of the companies reported action on sugar; ConAgra, Kraft, PepsiCo, Unilever and Ahold, and just four reported action on fat; Kraft, PepsiCo, Compass and Yum!.

The sad fact is that the issue of health has topped the headlines in this industry for years, but too many companies continue to bury their heads in the sand.