If things weren’t tough enough for consumers in 2011, they also had to contend with being short-changed in terms of food policy.
The launch of the Responsibility Deal and the Call to Action on Obesity showed the government to be over-reliant on voluntary action by industry to tackle serious diet-related illnesses. There seems to be no ‘Plan B’ if industry fails to respond effectively.
Despite Foresight’s call for a decisive approach to the future of food and farming, there’s still no clear overall strategy, although the Green Food Project was launched. Proposals for reform of the Common Agriculture Policy were uninspiring. And although the EU Food Information Regulations were adopted, they were far from the fundamental review originally envisaged.
The impact of fragmenting food policy responsibilities is now becoming apparent. We no longer have an independent ‘one-stop shop’ for food issues in the Food Standards Agency. Instead, Defra is responsible for food labelling and standards, while nutrition policy is back behind closed doors. The upshot is a host of different food priorities, as demonstrated by the FSA’s hygiene campaign, launched everywhere except England.
Can we be more optimistic this year? Many challenges remain the same - volatile food prices the need to help people make healthier choices and how to produce more food with a lower environmental impact. But progress is unlikely to be made unless policymakers broaden their perspective and ambition.
Obesity rates demand a more serious approach. Issues such as the need for traffic-light labelling, the quality of food in schools and hospitals, and the nature of food marketing, including price promotions, still need to be addressed. Calorie labelling in restaurants is still limited. Salt targets for 2012 exist but there are no plans for 2014, and while calorie reductions are receiving some attention, saturated fat is not.
Last year’s E.coli outbreaks showed that we can’t neglect food safety - an important lesson as the review of hygiene legislation and meat controls gathers pace and new proposals on novel foods are expected. Public health, rather than deregulation, has to be the priority.
While the causes of food prices are complex, the tools allowing consumers to make informed choices are not. As well as clearer food labelling, we need clearer pricing. At a more fundamental level, we must take stock of where UK food policy is headed.
Choices and trade-offs must be made. We can make progress if we have a co-ordinated approach and a joined up food policy that places consumer interests at its heart.