Blog: Dean BestBeyond taxing soft drinks, what does the BMA say about food?

Dean Best | 13 July 2015

The UK today (13 July) woke up to more headlines about calls for a tax on soft drinks. This time, the demand came from The British Medical Association, as part of its report on improving the diets of children and young people. However, officials at the BMA also had parts of the food industry firmly in their sights.

The Food for Thought report took aim at the decision by the previous UK government - and, apparently that of the current administration - to work with industry on issues of public health.

"Through the use of public-private partnerships, the government has placed too much emphasis on industry involvement in developing food and nutrition policy in the UK. This has led to a disproportionate focus on personal responsibility and voluntary action by industry, which has delivered limited or negligible public health gains," the report said.

The UK government's Public Health Responsibility Deal has proved controversial but Downing Street, as well as industry, would no doubt point to the progress made under the initiative. One measure they would likely cite would be the 2014 pledge by major confectioners to introduce a calorie cap.

The BMA report noted efforts to reduce calorie and saturated fat levels in some food groups in England but pointed to other moves in Scotland (health is a devolved issue) to "reduce calories and/or energy density, fats and added sugars" in categories including confectionery, dairy products and savoury snacks.

It did, however, insist the Scottish scheme has "no defined evaluation strategy, and the targets are relatively short-term (set for achievement by 2015)" and called for UK-wide targets, to be achieved by 2020, for manufacturers, retailers and caterers to reduce calorie, fat, saturated fat and added sugar levels for nine categories, including those above, biscuits; cakes; pies and pastries; sausages; chips and fried and roast potatoes; and soft drinks with added sugar. "Regulatory measures should be used if these targets are not met," the BMA wrote.

Other recommendations included a ban on the marketing of unhealthy food and drink products to children and young people, including moves to outlaw advertising in or around programmes "that appeal in any way to children and young people" (which could be known as The X Factor argument) and prohibiting any marketing or sponsorship of events or groups on similar grounds (perhaps with, say, Mars and its sponsorship activities linked with England's men's football team in mind).

The BMA also called for "high impact and sustained social marketing campaigns" to improve consumers' knowledge of the health risks of a poor diet.

The report looked in stores, calling for a ban on unhealthy food at checkouts or in queuing areas (an issue on which some retailers have already acted).

It also looked on labels, calling for a "mandatory, standardised approach for displaying nutritional information – based on traffic lights/colour coding, reference intakes, and high/medium/low text" for all pre-packaged food and drink products. The 2013 launch by the UK Department of Health on front-of-pack labels attracted the support of companies like Premier Foods plc but some notable names (including Unilever) steered clear.

The BMA acknowledged this recommendation would need regulatory changes at a European level.

The report did call for "international co-operation on nutrition". It read: "The UK Government should lobby for, and support the World Health Organization in developing and implementing an international treaty on food and nutrition in the form of a Framework Convention on Healthy Nutrition. This should include legally-binding provisions to tackle the availability, accessibility and promotion of unhealthy food and drink products, as well as a directive to ensure that food and nutrition policies are developed independently of commercial interests."

Much of the response from industry focused on the headlines around a sugar tax. However, Ian Wright, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, added: "British food and drink companies are cutting the salt, saturates and calories in their products, which are offered in a range of portion sizes. They have virtually eliminated artificial trans fats in UK products. For well over a decade, UK producers have voluntarily provided clear nutrition information on pack. The food industry is also helping health professionals to encourage people to use the information provided."

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