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A sugar reduction summit in London this week kicked off with Public Health England boss Alison Tedstone threatening to walk out because the event, at the Royal Society of Medicine, featured sugary snacks for the delegates’ breakfast.

But that rumpus was as nothing compared with the open warfare over sugar reduction that erupted as retailers and suppliers clashed over their role in the process.

A week after The Grocer revealed leading supermarkets had decided to call on David Cameron to set mandatory targets for reformulation, the leader of the Food & Drink Federation warned the plans risked sparking legal challenges across Europe and predicted regulatory chaos unless the government stuck with a voluntary approach.

So, with the Responsibility Deal dead and other EU countries also now considering mandatory targets, which side will the PM come down on in his new year childhood obesity strategy?

PHE has called for a “broad, structured and transparently monitored programme of gradual sugar reduction”, which it claims could see 50% of sugar removed from key food and drink categories.

Its analysis suggests such a programme has the potential to slash consumption of sugar across all age groups to below 10% of daily energy intake within five years, still double the government’s new target of 5% but widely considered as the “acceptable upper limit” by DH experts.

Significantly the biggest predicted shift would impact on children, while reformulation is widely seen as far more effective than other proposals such as a sugar tax, even by campaigners fighting for fiscal measures.

PHE’s poster child is the world-leading salt reduction strategy pioneered under the FSA in 2007, which since then is estimated to have saved 9,000 lives per year through fewer heart attacks and strokes.

Reformulation: how on earth?

Sugary drinks, yoghurts and ice cream are obvious reformulation targets but others with severe technical issues (eg biscuits) could focus on cutting portion sizes

Plans mooted to create central budget for research and innovation to help with technical challenges, which would help boost engagement from OOH sector and smaller companies, though government cash unlikely

At least five other EU countries also exploring plans for targets, which could pave way for EU model and help overcome competition issues

PHE and Tesco suggested two-stage reformulation plan, the first against sugar, to be followed by a blitz on artificial sweeteners

Salt lessons

However, critics such as Consensus Action on Salt (CASH) claim progress on salt has actually ground to a halt under the Responsibility Deal and supermarkets have now declared even the salt strategy fundamentally flawed because of its voluntary nature. The BRC says the war on sugar must be backed by the letter of the law.

“We have reached the conclusion in the last couple of weeks that reformulation targets for sugar will only work if they are addressed through legislative targets,” says BRC deputy director of food Andrea Martinez-Inchausti.

The supermarkets are mindful not just of the limitations of a voluntary approach but of the wider picture: PHE figures show about 18% of meals were eaten out of the home in the year ending March 2015, a 5% increase, and the BRC claims a reformulation strategy on sugar would be pointless if tens of thousands of takeaways and restaurants slipped through the net, as they have with salt.

Yet the BRC stance puts supermarkets on a collision course with suppliers. FDF director general Ian Wright claims mandatory targets on sugar would be both illegal and unenforceable.

“If the government goes down this route then, under EU law, it will have to do a deal individually with virtually every single manufacturer across Europe,” he says. “Anything that involves getting manufacturers in a room to discuss a system of mandatory reformulation targets is a cartel. We are prepared to go a very long way down this route but we simply think mandatory targets will not work.”

Massive budget cuts

Wright also points to massive budget cuts facing the FSA and local authorities. “Local government is facing a 56% reduction in its budget in the next five years and the FSA came within about 10 minutes of being disbanded. How on earth does that fit with enforcing a massive raft of new regulations and trying to get a level playing field?”

Another leading supplier source believes “we’re heading in the direction of new targets on sugar but I’m sure it will be a repeat of the salt programme.”

“The government will soon be speaking to big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and saying ‘right, what can you bring to the table?’”

But are all suppliers so steadfastly opposed to mandatory targets?

A leading supermarket source believes “the BRC’s shift in stance is significant but there are also a number of leading suppliers that are also starting to get behind the idea of targets. What we may get initially is a plan for a beefed up system of voluntary targets but if that is not shown to be bringing in enough support, regulation will follow.”

Lining up to crucify Cameron

That closely echoes the call from the health select committee last week but one campaigner says health groups will be “lining up to crucify” Cameron if he goes down the voluntary route again, and with the leading supermarkets now saying they would refuse to sign up to any such deal, it is increasingly hard to be optimistic about how it could work.

Some still believe the government will look to those sectors, like soft drinks, that have shown the most capacity and technical capabilities to lead the way, with other sectors forming the tail.

Dr Susan Jebb, former chair of the Responsibility Deal food network, fears a complete stalling of industry reformulation if the government does bow to calls for mandatory targets. It would be wrong to interpret PHE’s recommendations as a call for mandatory sugar reduction targets, she adds.

“We want a more structured approach but that doesn’t mean it has to be mandatory,” she says. “You have to remember that, with this government, for every new piece of regulation coming in two will have to come out. With that in mind we need to look to see if all the options for a voluntary approach have been exhausted.”