How could the food industry be affected by plans to curb childhood obesity?

A report from the UK’s chief medical officer has made a number of recommendations to tackle the sale and promotion of unhealthy foods, as well as tax breaks and labelling.

10 October 2019
image credit: Getty Images

The UK’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, has called for children’s health, not companies’ profits, to be put at the forefront of government policy, in a report released that looks at how to solve childhood obesity.

Declaring that Public Health England’s voluntary reformulation programme has failed to tackle the country’s obesity crisis and should be accelerated, Davies added that government shouldn’t shy away from regulation.

The report calls for everything from cigarette-style plain packaging for unhealthy food, a calorie cap on out-of-home eating and a radical overhaul of the VAT system to make healthy products cheaper.

What are some of the more radical recommendations?

  • Introduce plain packaging for food and drink like with tobacco or implementing a levy unless industry takes drastic steps on reformulation.
  • As part of registration for businesses that sell food and drink, make it a requirement that there is calorie/nutritional labelling and a cap on maximum calories per serving, as well as restricting multi-buys.
  • Prohibit eating and drinking on urban public transport, except fresh water, breastfeeding and for medical conditions.
  • Require the food industry to share data on sales and nutritional content of their food with policy makers and researchers.

What else has been raised?

  • A post-Brexit overhaul of VAT via a tiered approach so the unhealthiest products have a higher rate of VAT, which could be used to subsidise healthy food, starting with fruit and vegetables.
  • Review all tax-deductible expenses, including advertising expenses, available for the food and drink industry to ensure that these are aligned with health policies. For example, only allow businesses to claim tax relief for advertising healthy and not unhealthy products.
  • When the public is shopping online or using digital apps, provide nudges or information on healthier swaps.
  • Work with suppliers and packaging companies to introduce smaller portions for fast food.
  • Develop a national approach to supporting schools and local authorities to commission healthier catering supplies, including developing business regulation or codes of practice.

Which ideas have we heard before?

  • The immediate extension of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to sweetened milk-based drinks with added sugar and the prospect of adding categories such as biscuits, chocolate confectionary, ice creams, lollies and puddings.
  • Developing a system for a cap on calories per serving for all food and drink sold by the out-of-home food and drink sector, including online businesses.
  • Mandate across the whole out-of-home food and drink sector for consistent nutrition labelling on all menus and products, including front-of-pack traffic light labelling.
  • Phase out all marketing, advertising and sponsorship of less healthy food and drink products across all mediums, including online, at any major public venue or public-funded event, and on any public-sector-owned advertising site. For example, use data analytics to turn off adverts of unhealthy food and drink for children and families replacing these with positive health messages.

How has industry responded to the report on childhood obesity?

Kate Halliwell, the Food and Drink Foundation’s head of UK Diet and Health Policy, said members are committing time and resources to deliver the government’s various reformulation programmes by cutting salt, sugars and calories.

FDF members are selling 57.3m fewer kilograms of sugars and 1tn fewer calories than they were back in 2015, she added.

“As Public Health England acknowledge, reformulating products takes time, and we must always take the consumer with us. We want government to support us in this work and not introduce punitive measures which might hinder it,” she commented. "We agree more needs to be done to tackle obesity and welcome the report's clear steer that everyone needs to play their part, including schools, local councils and the NHS. Manufacturers alone will not solve this. We believe money should be put behind specific, targeted measures for those most affected by the burden of obesity."

UK Hospitality CEO Kate Nicholls said a blanket cap on calories for all portions of food and drink consumed out-of-home sounded like a knee-jerk, impractical and unfair measure, but thought the VAT idea could be explored to reduce costs for businesses that provide healthy food and drinks.

“We are supportive of measures to tackle childhood obesity, but a cap on all portions clearly removes choice for all customers irrespective of age,” she said. “Such a cap would cause problems for businesses, not to mention the obvious reduction in choice for customers and restricting of personal freedoms for adults who should be able to choose for themselves.

What has been the reaction from health campaigners?

Unsurprisingly, positive. Katharine Jenner, nutritionist and campaign director at Action on Sugar, said Davies’ call for action was bold and a beacon of hope, adding that these recommendations are required to achieve the government’s target to half childhood obesity in 10 years.

As raised in the report, Jenner said there was an urgent need to take unhealthy food and drink out of the spotlight by restricting promotions and marketing.

“There is no magic bullet to reverse the rise in childhood obesity, but the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan was supposed to deliver a range of measures that could have a significant impact, such as calorie reductions, a ban on junk food displayed at the checkouts and of energy drinks to children, calorie labelling on restaurant and cafe menus, and for the sugary drinks levy to be extended to sugary milk drinks,” she commented. “Legislation and fiscal measures are not always politically popular, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right; the unprecedented results of the sugary drinks levy speak for themselves.”


How the unhealthy stats stack up

  • Unhealthy foods are three times cheaper, according to The Food Foundation.
  • In 2017, over £300m was spent on advertising soft drinks, confectionery, and sweet and savoury snacks, compared to £16m spent on advertising fruit and vegetables.
  • On average, children now consume three unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks a day, containing seven teaspoons of sugar.
  • A recent survey in Liverpool found that a quarter of all takeaway meals sold exceeded 1,800 calories or three times the recommended meal size.
  • In the last 20 years, the portion sizes of pizza have grown 53%, bagels have increased by 29%, a packet of crisps has doubled in size and cottage pies have seen an 113% increase, research from the British Heart Foundation found.

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