Scales obesity

Could a new London scheme pave the way for local intervention on healthy eating?

In the fight to tackle obesity one plan has had as many comebacks as Frank Sinantra – the idea of retailers being persuaded to redesign store layouts and promote healthier food by making it cheaper and easier to buy.

It has been described as the “final piece in the jigsaw” of the Responsibility Deal, but despite being discussed at numerous meetings between industry and the Department of Health (DH) in the past year, progress has been pretty much non-existent.

Those who support the cause were not helped when former health minister Anna Soubry admitted to The Grocer last summer she had never even heard of the plans, dismissing the very notion of guilt lanes as “nonsense” and saying it was down to consumers to take responsibility for eating healthily.

Soubry’s replacement Jane Ellison, who has done a pretty good impression of the invisible woman when it comes to speaking out on behalf of the Responsibility Deal, then tried to bring back the idea – only for it to be dropped because it was seen as too difficult to get suppliers on board.

Last week The Grocer revealed the plan on healthy promotions was, incredibly, discussed one more time by the DH and industry earlier this month – although it ended with Ellison admitting the best the government could hope for was for retailers to lead though isolated examples, such as Tesco’s scrapping of guilt lanes and Lidl’s healthy checkouts plan.

Just when it looked as if the jigsaw would remain incomplete, there was a new twist in the tale – one that could have a huge impact on retailers and suppliers.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has launched a new initiative in Lambeth and Croydon led by Rosie Boycott, the well-known Fleet Street hack and feminist-turned-would-be obesity tsar. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have all signed up to the plan, which has agreed initiatives such as helping schools with healthy eating education.

But next up in Boris and Boycott’s agenda are far more radical plans to change supermarket store layouts to make healthy food more prominent and to make healthy food cheaper. Boycott says she hopes to change “how and what” supermarkets sell.

This will be a fascinating scheme to watch. The role of local authorities in setting the public health agenda has already been felt by the drinks industry, as across the UK councils have taken action on high-strength booze – and ministers have simply watched on.

If the DH takes the same attitude to this issue, it’s possible we could see local anti-obesity drives spring up across the country, with supermarkets and suppliers in the firing line.

Antipathy towards the food industry is certainly present in some local public health bodies. Could the Lambeth/Croydon scheme pave the way for a wave of local attacks on the industry, instead of at national level?