The UK’s long-awaited child obesity strategy looks set to be published during the next couple of weeks, but when it does it is likely to be a cause of further acrimony between the food industry and health campaigners.

Campaigners have voiced concerns the strategy has been weakened by lobbying from industry. Campaign group Action on Sugar (AOS) said the strategy had been “severely eroded by strong lobbying from certain members of the food industry”, naming representative bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and the British Soft Drinks Association specifically. 

Publication of the strategy has been delayed and was further postponed by the UK government until after the EU Referendum. With the disruption to government and economic uncertainty caused by the vote to leave the EU on 23 June, it seemed highly likely the strategy would be further delayed until after the parliamentary recess. Parliament breaks on 21 July and returns on 5 September.

It also seemed the resignation of the prime minister and resulting conservative leadership election may also result in the strategy being held back, but in fact the reverse appears to be the case, with David Cameron now very keen to see the strategy published as a legacy policy.

In a letter to The Times today (8 July), the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), representing more than 30 charities, medical organisations and campaign groups, called on Cameron to leave “a meaningful legacy and ensure we are the first country to turn around the rising rate of child obesity.

The letter continued: “We cannot let current political uncertainty prevent Government from taking decisive action to tackle a problem that Mr Cameron himself has as described as a crisis.”

The OHA said there should be no further delay in publishing and implementing the strategy, which, to be effective “must tackle the food environment by introducing ambitious targets to reduce sugar, saturated fat and salt from our food” and include “meaningful sanctions for food companies who do not meet these targets”.

Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator for the Children’s Food Campaign, a signatory to the OHA letter, believes industry organisations are using the problems created by the Brexit vote as a lever to gain concessions. “We’re certainly hearing rumours that industry is lobbying heavily for things to be weakened,” Clark told just-food. “The big question is are we now going to get that brave and  bold obesity strategy or whether the Brexit vote has been the excuse politicians needed to water things down?”

Clark continued: “The impression is that things are not being pushed as hard as they could because the industry is complaining hard about the extra burden [caused by Brexit]. We’re certainly hearing rumours that certain things in the obesity strategy are being watered down because of the need to get it out relatively quickly before Cameron goes.”

Both Clark and the OHA letter specifically expressed concern that the levy on sugary drinks, announced in the Budget in March and scheduled to be included in the Finance Bill next year, would now be postponed. The FDF has called for the levy to be put “on hold” in the wake of the Brexit vote. “We want to see renewed commitment to the Levy as part of the Strategy,” Clark said.

The FDF, which represents UK food manufacturers, neither confirmed nor denied that concessions to the child obesity strategy had been gained. However, in a statement to just-food, Ian Wright, director general of the FDF, suggested measures that placed extra burdens on industry at this time would be “unwelcome”.

Wright said: “We don’t know the detail of what will be in the Government’s forthcoming childhood obesity strategy or when it will be published, but the industry is already planning where it can take further action, building on our impressive track record of voluntary action. We hope that the strategy that is published is holistic and evidence-based, looking at healthy balanced diets alongside physical activity and not giving any one nutrient undue prominence.

“During this period of massive business uncertainty, any measures which cause real difficulty to industry without making a difference to obesity would be unwelcome. Economic hardship, which is potentially on the cards for the foreseeable future, isn’t good for public health.”

According to AOS, the child obesity strategy will include voluntary targets for food companies to reduce sugar in their products by 20%, rather than the overall 50% sugar reduction that AOS has called for. “If the aim is only to reduce sugar by 20% through a voluntary system that is not enforced, the actual reduction is likely to be far less, meaning we may only reduce population calorie intake by approximately 20 calories per person per day, which is not sufficient to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes in either children or adults,” AOS said in a statement.

Action on Sugar pointed to support for mandated sugar reduction targets from the British Retail Consortium, which represents major supermarket chains, and said it believed this was echoed by many food manufacturers which want to see a “level playing field” regarding reformulation. AOS also said it fears the child obesity strategy will only include “minor restrictions” in the marketing of foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat to children.