HFSS food & drinks

Labour revealed plans to take a far more interventionist approach than the current government on HFSS food and drinks

Leading supermarkets have told the Labour conference they would support mandatory targets to fight obesity as the party pledged to launch a major new clampdown on HFSS foods if it wins the election.

Asda and Sainsbury’s both told delegates at the party’s gathering in Liverpool they would support new laws to regulate the sales of unhealthy food.

The move comes as Labour revealed its plans to take a far more interventionist approach than the current government, which it criticised for rowing back on a series of its plans to tackle the obesity crisis.

Yet the developments also came just days after the Department of Health held talks with NGOs over controversial plans for major food companies to launch a new voluntary health reporting system.

The Grocer has learned the talks have been boycotted by key NGOs who claim it is simply a rehash of the failed Responsibility Deal.

Meanwhile, the latest discussions in Liverpool have seen major retailers align themselves to regulation rather than a voluntary approach.

It emerged Asda is going into partnership with innovation charity Nesta, which has set out plans for supermarkets to be given mandatory targets on healthy sales based on the government’s nutrient profiling model.

Asda chief commercial officer Kris Comerford said the supermarket “stood ready“ to back new laws from policymakers, saying he did not think a voluntary approach went far enough.

“The government needs to set the mission and let the industry sort out the flexibilities and methodology to work though,” he said.

“We’re delighted with the partnership we’re going to strike up with Nesta. We at Asda, and actually all retailers, feel we have a big responsibility to help communities lead healthy lives.

 “We stand ready to work with government and we are here to work with policymakers.

“We’re here today because we are ready to make the changes necessary on this incredibly important topic.”

Asda has not been among the supermarkets working with the DHSC on its plans for a voluntary system of health reporting, although others, including Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, have been involved in the talks.

However, Sainsbury’s group head of sustainable diets Nilani Sritharan told a separate event at the conference run by the Recipe for Change campaign, that it too would prefer a regulatory approach to tackle obesity.

Recipe for Change is made up of 36 health organisations, including royal colleges and charities such as the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK and the Cancer Research Fund, which want the government to act on Dimbleby’ s call for a £3/kg levy on sugar and £6/kg levy on salt by Henry Dimbleby in his national food strategy.

Sainsbury’s said it backed regulation that would create a level playing field.

Labour’s shadow public health minister Preet Gill told attendees at the conference a Labour government would form a new health mission delivery board, similar to the climate change committee, as part of plans for a sweeping clampdown on HFSS sales and advertising.

“For years there has been no public health policy under this government and there has been an unwillingness to lead on issues like childhood obesity,” she said.

“Meanwhile the industry is in limbo and children are being targeted with things like Kit Kat Cereal.”

“The government’s national food strategy had virtually nothing to say on public health despite the best efforts of Henry Dimbleby.

“The one thing it did come up with was the national food data transparency proposals and that has been watered down and ground to a standstill so it’s really impossible for businesses to know where they stand.”

Gill added: “We face a national epidemic of obesity which has only got worse under this government.

“When it comes to public health there is a clear divide between us and the Conservatives.”

It is not yet clear if Labour will go as far as backing Dimbleby’s call for a raft of new taxes on HFSS products with Labour leader Keir Starmer keen to avoid backing policies that could see the party accused of damaging the economy.

But health campaigners and investor bodies are hoping a Labour government could be persuaded to back taxes including plans for levies on HFSS products to fund reformulation.

Ben Reynolds, deputy CEO at Sustain, said: “It’s clear Labour will not be afraid to explore mandatory approaches where they are needed.

“This can be treated in tandem with the welcome comments from Sainsbury’s on our panel who support the role of industry regulation to improve public health, to provide a level playing field to support businesses that are trying to do the right thing.

“This echoes comments from industry across the conference on the need for certainty and stability for business to invest rather than having to respond to government flip-flopping on policy in recent years.”

Labour’s plans are in stark contrast to the government’s approach, which despite launching the Food Data Transparency Partnership off the back of Dimbleby’s call has ruled out setting targets and delayed or scrapped most of Boris Johnson’s plans for a clampdown on HFSS foods.

The DHSC told The Grocer it wanted to avoid any “additional burdens” to business during “this challenging time”.