Westminster Parliament, House of Commons

Turning point? The war of words over UPFs in Westminster has picked up pace

Negative sentiment towards ultra-processed food is growing among MPs from all parties, while the food industry offers “no discernible pushback”, a report for The Grocer has found. 

The white paper published by marketing and PR agency SPQR provides a forensic breakdown of all mentions of UPFs in the current parliament.

It shows hostility has ramped up across the political spectrum in both houses, whipped up by the high-profile campaigning of figures such as Dr Chris van Tulleken and Professor Tim Spector.

Meanwhile, the food industry has gone “missing in action” amid the growing controversy over UPFs, the report claims. 

It warns that the Labour Party – which has already threatened to ”steamroller” the food and drink industry with measures to tackle HFSS foods – is likely to come after UPFs if it wins the election.

The report notes the “deafening silence” of the food industry in its defence of UPFs, as well as the lack of industry attempts to demonstrate benefits of processed food when it comes to affordability, and the advantages of mass production.

The analysis looks at every mention of UPFs in either house from December 2019 to a cut-off point in April 2024, including spoken and written contributions in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Each reference was sourced directly from the official Hansard report and rated for sentiment: positive, neutral or negative.

The debate, says the report, has been lopsided from the beginning, with overwhelmingly negative sentiment expressed and virtually no references to the benefits of processing, such as safety, convenience and affordability.

The first formal debate on UPF was in the House of Lords on 2 July 2020, introduced by The Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, but the topic remained in the relative wilderness for three years until a major turning point in April 2023 when van Tulleken published his book, Ultra Processed People.

It was followed by a BBC Panorama, before other leading figures including Professor Tim Spector joined in the onslaught.

Negative mentions increased threefold, with more than 80% of mentions in the House of Commons negative, against only 15 neutral and a tiny proportion positive.

In the Lords, by comparison, 46% of mentions were negative and 51% neutral.

Last year there were four debates in parliament, all peppered with references to van Tulleken’s book.

Dr Chris van Tulleken and Henry Dimbleby at the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee inquiry

Source: House of Lords 2024 / Roger Harris

Dr Chris van Tulleken and Henry Dimbleby at the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee inquiry in February 2024

The research shows little difference in sentiment between parties, with 50% of mentions by Labour and Tory parliamentarians negative in sentiment, with politicians “in broad agreement” that UPFs are bad.

Despite shadow health secretary Wes Streeting’s threat to “steamroll” junk food companies if Labour gets to power, he has never mentioned UPFs in parliament.

But the report says that with Labour committed to restrict junk food advertising on television and ban paid-for advertising of less healthy foods on online media aimed at children, it is “highly likely” that UPFs will be targeted by a Labour government.

As for the food industry, the white paper says its silence has spoken volumes, with companies reluctant to become involved in controversy over the products despite the huge implications for future sales, while trade bodies have failed to speak up on their behalf.

“There’s no discernible push-back from the sector,” says the report. “The FDF is quoted once in the entire dataset. No other industry association or sector research is mentioned in four years of debate.

“The food and drink industry is missing in action.”

Former government food tsar and National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby has become another influential figure in the war on UPFs.

In February he called for a 24-hour total ban on advertising of ultra-processed and HFSS foods and for the introduction of black octagon warning signs, such as those used in Chile, to be used on the front of packs of all UPFs and HFSS foods.

In the same month, The Grocer revealed a report from food industry category consultants Levercliff claiming almost a million customers a month are turning away from ultra-processed food products.

Also in February, The Grocer revealed the majority of consumers believe UPFs are bad for their health.

Tom Horsman, director at SPQR, told The Grocer: “It’s been a complete one-sided argument and the industry has been reluctant to become involved. Unless this changes, I think it could easily lead to a change in regulations after what happens on 4 July.

“It’s up to brands to step into the ring.

“Traditionally the food industry is only good at lobbying hard when things are at maximum jeopardy and this could soon be the case with UPF.

“All the time that this one-sided debate continues, the reputation of he industry and its products is being battered.”