'Childhood Obesity - A Plan for Action': 4 Key Points for Industry

Childhood Obesity – A Plan for Action was published August 2016. Its’ introduction accepts that childhood obesity is a complex problem involving behaviour, environment, genetics and culture. The Plan’s stated aim is to address this by achieving long-term sustainable change over the next ten years.

There follows 14 summary ‘Action’ points.

These can be broadly categorised into 3 sections:

(i) Action for the food industry,

(ii) Action for public policy; including procurement policies, healthy eating vouchers, supporting innovative technology to assist informing consumers and updating the nutrient profile model; and

(iii) Action for schools; including school menus, physical exercise and a new healthy rating scheme.

Actions for Industry

As far as industry is concerned the main thrust of the plan appears to be in encouraging reformulation; specifically in reformulating to reduce sugar content.

There are two key action points for food industry:

  • The introduction of a new UK wide soft drinks industry ‘levy’
  • Sugar reduction of 20% in other foods

1. Soft Drinks Sugar Tax

The so-called levy is aimed at sugar sweetened beverages only. Mention is made that producers have been given two years to lower the sugar in their drinks so that they won’t face the levy if they take action.

The ‘levy’, fine or ‘tax’ is intended to place this cost on producers and importers; ‘rather than consumers.’ The levy is then intended to be invested in programmes to reduce obesity in school-age children.

The technical detail is decidedly absent. It is stated that HM Treasury will consult over the summer and there will be legislation in the Finance Bill 2017.

The ‘technical detail’ may well involve the two bands of tax previously envisaged in Public Health England's October 2015 report: one for total sugar content above 5 grams per 100 millilitres and the second, higher band for those more than 8grams per 100 millilitres. It also seems apparent that this tax will be based solely on ‘sugar sweetened drinks’ rather than those drinks with their sugar content from fruit, vegetables or dairy; 'free sugars'. It is therefore unlikely to be based on actual sugar content, or indeed calories, raising questions of proportionality.

The Action Plan emphasises this is a levy on industry rather than the consumer however it is not clear what tax regime they will utilise in order to ensure that this is not passed on to the consumer, particularly in a food industry that is already dealing with extremely small margins. The complex proposition of ensuring that any money from this levy is used to support anti-obesity programmes for school age children will also require a significant investment in strategic government accounting.

2. Sugar Reduction 20%

The next target for focussed reformulation (with the threat presumably of yet more ‘levies’) are the nine categories of food that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes: breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods (pastries), puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads.

It is stated that work will then move on to cover the ‘remaining relevant foods and drinks’, including any products out of scope of the soft drinks industry levy, for example, milk-based drinks.

Progress will be measured on the basis of reductions in the weighted average sugar content per 100grams, reductions in portion size or a clear sales shift towards lower sugar alternatives. Progress will be monitored by Public Health England on a six monthly basis. No reference is made here to ‘sugar sweetened’ but rather simply sugar content and therefore it is uncertain if, for example, our national treasure of a traditional ‘cream tea’ with strawberry jam may be under threat.

The focus for government in the actions against obesity is very much based on sugar rather than calorie consumption, (presumably to allow the political point of differentiation between simply taxing all food.) In the action point to seek general sugar reduction it is stated that this ‘should’ be accompanied by a reduction in calories and ‘should not’ be compensated for by increases in saturated fat. No detail of how this might be checked or enforced is provided.

Actions for Government

Two of the action points for government that would impact on industry were:

  • Updating Nutrient Profile
  • ‘Clearer’ Food Labelling

3. Update Nutrient Profile

The EU has notably failed to provide a nutrient profile for foods bearing claims since its’ self-imposed deadline in 2009, namely due to the difficulty in pigeon-holing an individual food that should be regarded as part of entire diet and to meet the, sometimes very different, nutritional needs of an individual consumer.

The UK nutrient profile has been in operation for the last 10 years as a general guide for those foods that might be regarded as high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). In light of the focus on sugar any revision may be to change the levels to become stricter. A recent consultation on advertising by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) also queried whether advertising codes should adopt this nutrient profile, therefore any update to this profile may have more far reaching effects on advertising and marketing for producers, as well as their supply of goods to the public sector under potentially stricter procurement criteria that would equally be governed by this profile.

However, the controversy between nutritionists in relation to the recent government ‘Eatwell’ plate as to whether there should be such a restriction on fat as opposed to carbohydrate has illustrated the uncertainty of science in such a complex question of the ‘healthiest’ diet proposal. Any revisions may therefore be part of a long drawn out process.

4. Review of Food Labelling

There is currently voluntary additional ‘front of pack’ information on certain foods that uses the Food Standards Agency championed ‘traffic light scheme’.

The Action Plan references ‘Brexit’ as potentially allowing increased flexibility to determine what information ‘should’ be presented on packaged foods. It is stated as an action point to ‘review’ opportunities in labelling; specifically for example the use of teaspoons of sugar to illustrate sugar content (as was proposed in the Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising) Bill.) It is however hoped that such a review might advocate increased flexibility in labelling to allow food industry to champion their reformulations to consumers and thereby incentivise rather than penalise food companies.

Currently all food information to consumers on packaged products, including the formatting of nutritional labelling, is governed by EU food labelling regulation 1169/ 2011 which specifically states that whilst national measures may be permitted, they should not prohibit, impede or restrict the free movement of goods that are in conformity with EU law. 

Summary

The mantle of reformulation has already been accepted by the food industry, particularly the soft drinks industry, with a doubling of the proportion of low and no calorie products being produced, reformulation and extension of different varieties to provide much greater consumer choice and increasing availability of smaller pack sizes. A levy is a tax by any other name and any tax on industry will have repercussions in increasing costs, requiring reduced overheads, which in turn will impact on employment and higher prices for the consumer.

A positive plan of promoting healthy eating and sustainably grown locally produced food is an opportunity sadly missed.

To use Brexit to increase regulation rather than allow flexibility for business will further undermine UK industry at a time when stability and support is required. The prospect of such ‘tinkering’, with resultant costs and division of the market, is unhelpful in the extreme.

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