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The government has won the backing of health campaigners for a new system of health reporting for all large food companies.

In a letter to public health minister Andrea Leadsom, seen by The Grocer, a coalition of more than 50 health groups set out its support for a system that is set to include reporting on the percentage sales of HFSS foods, percentage sales of fruit & veg, and percentage sales of types of proteins (animal and plant).

The proposals are understood to be in line to be published in May under the government and industry Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP). The group said they should be the first step towards a system of mandatory reporting.

So far the plans, drawn up with the support of food companies including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, and suppliers such as Nestlé, Mars and General Mills, have stopped short of insisting on mandatory sign-up and are based on voluntary reporting commitments.

Winning the backing of the health lobby, even with such a proviso, is being seen as a major breakthrough for the government, which has seen its public health policy lambasted after a series of u-turns on major policy commitments.

The Grocer revealed in September that all large food companies were being urged to commit to a new system of reporting transparent health-based sales data, in a bid to incentivise healthier diets. Some health groups initially boycotted talks over the scheme, which they branded as a “Responsibility Deal Mark II”.

However, in a letter to Leadsom, Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance, which includes groups such as the BMA, the Food Foundation and Share Action, said: “We wish to offer our support to you in progressing the Food Data Transparency Partnership, with a view to publishing robust recommendations in May 2024.

“The data from this programme is vital to assess food industry progress towards putting healthier and more sustainable food options on the shelves, shifting sales towards healthier and more sustainable foods, and to inform future food-related policies. This is particularly important for the diets of children, to ensure the healthiest possible start in life and set them up for a healthy growth trajectory. It will also help to create a level playing field for businesses, de-risking their investment into healthier sales portfolios, and to help investors to align their investments with businesses that support healthier, more sustainable food environments.“

With the plans having been drawn up following a series of talks with leading food companies, ministers are due to discuss their finalised proposals with the health lobby later this month.

The OHA said having sales based reporting covering a comprehensive cross section of metrics was vital to achieve transparency.

“Currently, no major UK food retailers and foodservice businesses disclose data across all three areas, however a number report on at least one area – demonstrating it is feasible, if given sufficient priority,” said the letter.

“This is commercial data already held by large companies, and can be expanded to smaller businesses in time given the right support.”

However, despite their backing, the industry still faces the prospect of further clashes with health groups who insist that the system should be made mandatory, as originally proposed in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy.

The letter goes on to say: “As a next step we also strongly recommend the metrics are reported on within a mandatory framework, as per the government’s Food Strategy.”

Barbara Crowther, manager of the Children’s Food Campaign, which boycotted the original talks, added: “There’s widespread support for establishing a concrete set of agreed metrics for company reporting on progress towards healthy food and drink.

“We hope that the minister will ensure the health working group of the FDTP stays on track for delivering these metrics and puts enough resources in her department to manage it transparently.

“However, we strongly believe the government must not rely just on voluntary reporting, but should make it mandatory in future. Only a robust mandatory framework will ensure health is taken more seriously by every food and drink company, and support the industry-wide innovation and change that is so urgently needed.”