02 Sep 2016

On 18 August the Government's long-awaited childhood obesity strategy was finally published. Originally due for publication in December 2015, 'Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action' sets out how the government intends to tackle the issue of childhood obesity. Obesity is a growing problem in the UK, costing the NHS an estimated £5.1 billion on overweight and obesity-related illnesses in 2014/15.

The multi-faceted approach largely follows the recommendations made by Public Health England, many of which were endorsed by the House of Commons Health Committee back in November 2015. This includes a focus on the importance of promoting a healthy lifestyle in schools and during early-years development, using revenue from the forthcoming sugar levy to fund programmes to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and balanced diets for children in school.

From a food industry perspective, many soft drink manufacturers have already voiced concerns about the impact the upcoming sugar levy could have on businesses, with Gavin Partington of the British Soft Drinks Association saying, "Given the economic uncertainty our country now faces, we're disappointed the government wishes to proceed with a measure which analysis suggests will cause thousands of job losses and yet fail to have a meaningful impact on levels of obesity." The levy is now subject to an HMRC and HM Treasury Consultation, issued on the same date as the Obesity Strategy, and which focusses on the design and implementation aspects of the levy, not on whether the levy should be introduced at all.

Aside from the sugar levy, a key element of the strategy is the reformulation of products, in terms of sugar content and calorie content as well as portion size. The main concern is likely to be the introduction of a programme designed to "encourage" industry to reduce the sugar content of products that contribute to children's sugar intake by at least 20% by 2020. While ostensibly a voluntary programme led by Public Health England (PHE), regular reports will be published by PHE every six months, with a more comprehensive assessment every 18 months, to ensure sufficient progress is being made. These reviews, with the promise of "other levers" being introduced if sufficient progress is not made by 2020, appear to be an attempt by Government to harness the work already being done by industry on this issue. However, the lack of clarity or detail on this element is likely to create an unwelcome degree of uncertainty and competitive unease throughout the industry. It should also be noted that this aspect of the strategy extends beyond manufacturers and retailers to the hospitality and leisure sectors, encompassing cafes, restaurants and takeaways in its ambit. It is not yet clear how Public Health England will work with these sectors to achieve the stated objectives.

Also of concern are the proposals to review the clarity of food labelling, citing the recent decision to leave the EU as "providing greater flexibility to determine what information should be presented on packaged food, and how it should be displayed." This could signal the imposition of new rules on food labelling, such as making a distinction between sugars and 'free sugars'. If such rules are introduced, there are likely to be significant financial implications for food manufacturers, who would need to develop yet more new labels for a large number of products. This could also impact the viability of exporting goods to EU member states, which will of course continue to abide by the EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation.

Conspicuous by their absence are any mentions of two of the measures PHE identified as high priority, namely:

  • Prohibiting price promotions of junk food in supermarkets, as well as the promotion of unhealthy food to children in restaurants, cafes and takeaways; and
  • Restricting the advertising of HFSS products to children during popular family entertainment television programmes.

However, these were the subject of a recent consultation by the Committee of Advertising Practice, which closed on 22 July, a point which appears to have been missed by those campaigners who cite these omissions as evidence of a "watered down" strategy. That Consultation included proposals to:

  • Introduce a new rule to the CAP Code to limit where advertising for high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) products can be placed in all non-broadcast media, including online
  • Explore whether the new rule should prohibit HFSS product advertising in media targeted at or of particular appeal to children under 12 or under 16
  • Apply the existing rules prohibiting the use of promotions and licensed characters popular with children to HFSS products only, to allow more creative ways for the promotion of healthier foods to children.

No time-scale has been published by CAP on next steps following the Consultation, which does appear to have been somewhat overlooked amid the other activity around obesity.

Whilst the new childhood obesity strategy has introduced a variety of measures designed to tackle the incidence of obesity among children, including targeting lifestyle and education issues from an early age, the brunt of the strategy clearly falls on the food industry, but with a lack of clear direction at the current time. Whether this is elucidated on by PHE remains to be seen, but the lack of clarity and detail will be a cause for concern across all areas of the food industry.