It’s been a year since the government launched its Public Health Responsibility Deal for England “to tap into the potential for businesses and other organisations to improve public health and tackle health inequalities”. But so far it has proved inadequate.
The public agrees. A new Which? survey has found that only 28% of people are satisfied the government is taking enough action to help people eat healthily. So far, companies have been asked to sign up to pledges to display information about calories in restaurants, reduce salt in foods and remove trans fats. A new pledge is also being launched to encourage companies to help people reduce calorie intakes. But while companies have pledged to make changes, there’s not been enough action.
Only two of the top 10 restaurant and pub groups have signed up to provide calorie information - and even then, not for all of their main brands. The fast food chains stand out for relatively quick action and national roll-out, but when it comes to coffee chains, big names like Costa and Café Nero still haven’t pledged. If there’s still no take-up by the major chains by September, the government should legislate to require them to provide calorie information.
When it comes to salt reduction, many companies have signed up. But there are major exceptions. While some chain restaurants and caterers have committed, a lot more action is needed. It is absurd that the government has no plans to make further reductions beyond 2012. An approach based on gradual reductions must continue.
There’s been some good work on trans fats but it hasn’t gone far enough. The government needs to ban artificial trans fats so that action is taken across the board, ensuring smaller brands, takeaways and other caterers have also removed these from food.
It will be interesting to see how the calorie reduction pledge plays out. The pledge is vague and calls on industry to act through a range of actions, giving food companies too much flexibility. The government has not made it clear what level of action is needed from different sectors. Success will depend on whether there is much action on the foods that are major sources of calories in the diet, such as soft drinks, confectionery and snack foods.
We have the worst rates of obesity in Europe and major issues with diet-related diseases such as cancers, heart disease and stroke. But the government’s approach relies too much on voluntary deals rather than showing real leadership. Tackling poor diet needs to be dealt with independently and at arms’ length from government if we are to see meaningful change.