Blog: Dean BestIndustry has the initiative in policy debates on both sides of Atlantic

Dean Best | 17 October 2011

In recent days, announcements in the US and the UK have demonstrated how the food industry in both countries has the upper hand on significant areas of food policy.

In the US last week, the likes of PepsiCo, Kraft Foods and Campbell Soup Co. would have been cheered by the news that the Obama administration's plans to introduce voluntary restrictions on the marketing of food to children are set to be revised. The US Congress heard how the four government agencies tasked with drawing up the restrictions are changing their proposals in the wake of consultation and, crucially, moves earlier this year by the industry to introduce its own guidelines on the nutritional content of food it sells to children.

One of the four agencies, the Federal Trade Commission, told Congress the revised restrictions would "share much in common" with the industry's guidelines, which were published this summer by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory programme that comprises 17 major food and drink manufacturers.

Campaigners had hoped that the government's initial proposals, although admittedly voluntary, would mean strict guidelines on how food could be marketed to children. However, after lobbying from the industry and food manufacturers' moves to introduce their own guidelines, those plans will not be pursued. Campaigners can be heartened by the fact that the US government's plans prompted food makers to draw up their own proposals. Nevertheless, the planned changes to the agencies' proposals represent something of a victory for the industry.

In the UK, meanwhile, came a fresh "call to action" from the coalition to tackle the nation's obesity problem.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wants the UK to eat 5bn fewer calories a day and for there to be a "downward trend in excess weight" by 2020.

The call to action was the formal launch of the coalition's new plans to tackle obesity in England, where it says over 60% of adults and a third of 10- to 11-year-olds are obese.

However, the detail of the plan shows Lansley will press on with his policy of 'nudging' consumers to improve their diet through partnering with the food industry, rather than regulating to force companies to cut fat, salt and sugar.

"Government has a role to play, but it is clear that we cannot do this alone.  We need to work in a broad partnership with local authorities, businesses, charities, health professionals and individuals," Lansley said.

He pointed to the success of the coalition's Responsibility Deal, where government, industry and the third sector work together on the issue. "We have already seen how we can move further, faster through the Responsibility Deal and I am now challenging business to help us make even greater progress. Reducing the number of calories we consume is essential. It can happen if we continue action to reduce calories in everyday foods and drinks, and if all of us who are overweight take simple steps to reduce our calorie intake."

There has been a lot of debate about the merits (or otherwise) of moves like the fat tax introduced in Denmark earlier this month to improve public health. UK food manufacturers will be relieved Lansley's "challenge" to business does not include similar measures.

The Department of Health insists that it has never ruled out what Lansley calls "regulatory interventions" and claims it keeps all international evidence under review. However, as with the Prime Minister's recent assertion that Denmark's fat tax is "something we should look at", the Department's comments are purely pragmatic. The coalition would be unwise to rule out the use of measures like taxation if only to keep the industry on its toes but, given its record so far of wanting to work with manufacturers and retailers rather than impose regulation on them, a Denmark-style move would be a huge surprise.

There is no denying the work the UK food industry has made on reformulation and it should be applauded. And Lansley's vow to cut 5bn calories from the nation's diet (even if it was curiously announced alongside an increase in the recommended daily calorie intake) will mean the industry will have to work harder.

But, equally, it is hard to dispute that the coalition's continued belief in 'nudging' means it remains in the industry's hands whether any regulation is ever introduced.


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