Shopper apple fruit loose

Source: Getty

The strategy would see the Food and Drink Sector Council charged with overseeing a slimmed down set of transparent targets 

The government is in talks with industry leaders about the launch of a major new collaborative approach to tackle obesity, The Grocer can reveal.

It is understood the strategy being discussed could abandon the bombardment of targets seen under now-defunct Public Health England (PHE), and instead see the Food and Drink Sector Council charged with overseeing a slimmed down set of transparent targets against collaboratively agreed health goals.

The plan bears hallmarks of the controversial Responsibility Deal, a partnership between the government and industry launched under former health secretary Andrew Lansley in 2011 but abandoned after the collapse of the coalition government, although food leaders say the model most closely resembles the Food Foundation’s successful Peas Please initiative.

In December, the Food Foundation reported a huge spike in vegetable intake thanks to voluntary commitment by retailers and suppliers, with the initiative having seen an extra 636 million portions of veg sold since it launched four years ago.

A key figure in the talks is Tamsin Cooper, the government’s National Food Strategy (NFS) Director who, having worked with Henry Dimbleby on the publication of his strategy last year, has been sent on secondment to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and given a team to spearhead the government’s response to the report.


Read more:


This week the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) said it was hopeful the talks, which come following much speculation about what the government will do next on its obesity strategy, would lead to a more joined-up approach on public health than during the time of PHE – although a voluntary partnership is likely to face a rough ride from health campaigners demanding an extension of taxes, as proposed by Dimbleby, as well as mandatory targets on areas such as salt and sugar reduction.

“We think that sort of collaboration between industry and government is really important,” said a source involved in the talks.

“What we have seen is that otherwise you end up with targets that just aren’t realistic or aren’t feasible and then industry gets bashed for not meeting them.

“Setting a 20% sugar reduction figure was a classic example. The government have said themselves they know that wasn’t realistic in all categories. What we want is a collaborative approach where we are involved from the start.

“Obviously, we want targets to be ambitious and help to achieve the outcomes government wants, but they also need to be practical and that’s where we can get technologists from industry involved to make sure that’s the case.”

The appointment of Cooper has been hailed as significant by a number of industry executives involved in policy development.

“It’s most welcome to see a level of continuity and connectedness between Defra and DH,” said one. “That’s always been one of the frustration. The left hand of government not knowing or even caring what the other hand is doing.” 

The first source added: “It sounds like they are working very closely with the Defra Food Strategy team to think about what that will say relating to health.

“We hope this is going to lead to a more collaborative approach. Defra have told us it is going to be working with industry, they want collaboration.

“When they publish it there are going to be further things taken forward in consultation with the industry.

“The reformulation programmes so far have had a level of collaboration, they have consulted with industry on those targets, just maybe not to the level we would have liked.”

The Food Foundation has said the success of the Peas Please initiative has shown there is “clear proof” that evidence-based transparent reporting on the health of products, as recommended by Dimbleby, has a key role to play in tackling obesity and both suppliers and retailers look to be swinging behind the calls, despite the FDF having initially raised competition concerns.

This week the federation published pledges by 20 food and drink brands to increase the amount of fibre in consumers’ diets as part of its new Action on Fibre initiative, launched by the FDF and backed by the likes of Kellogg’s, Birds Eye and Warburtons.

Like the Responsibility Deal and the Peas Please initiative, it features a raft of promises by food companies to improve the health of products.

The first source said it also reflected the work companies were doing to add ingredients to food rather than take them out.

“What we felt is that the previous government strategy was very heavily focused on things we should reduce from the diet, as in the 20% headline-grabbing sugar target.”

Last month The Grocer revealed that the government had confirmed it would break its promise to publish a response to the NFS within six months of the report last July, with the report now expected to be published in March.