A Labour government would set maximum levels for fat, salt, and sugar in food marketed to children, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham announced today.

In a move which sees the Conservatives and Labour at odds over the industry’s role in the fight against obesity and diet related illnesses, Burnham claimed the Responsibility Deal had allowed “vested interests” in the industry to seize control of public health policy.

As well as food, Burnham said Labour was also looking at a crackdown on high strength, cheap alcohol, including possible further moves on minimum pricing,  bracketing “alcohol, sugar, and smoke” together as the biggest three threats to children from what he described as  “commercial pressures.”

However, Burnham made it clear Labour had backed away from calls within the party and from the health lobby for a far more aggressive series of measures aimed at tackling obesity and other issues across all age groups, with the party openly admitting it does not want to go into an election tagged as the party of the “nanny state.”

“Rather than a ‘finger-wagging’ approach, Labour will instead empower adults with information to make healthier choices and support to get active,” he said.

As well as regulations on HFSS products aimed at children, Labour said it would pursue improvements to food labelling to help people better understand what they are eating, including working at EU level to introduce traffic-light labelling of packaged food, despite huge opposition within the EU to the scheme.

“We are setting our clear intention to take robust action to protect children from harm where voluntary measures have failed,” said Burnham, adding it would bring in regulation to “limit the amount of sugar, fat, and salt in food marketed substantially to children, introduce standardised packaging of tobacco that this Government has failed to achieve, and crack down on the high-strength, low-cost alcohol products that fuel binge drinking and do most harm to health.” 

A Conservative spokesman described  Labour’s plans as “naïve” and said they flew in the face of falling levels of childhood-and adult-obesity.  ‘Real progress has been made on public health under this Government,” he said. “Obesity rates in adults and children have fallen since 2010, alcohol-related harm is down, and smoking rates are at their lowest ever levels.

Labour’s plans, however, are unlikely to go far enough to satisfy many in the health lobby, who are calling for much further reaching regulation on food and drink. This week the National Obesity Forum called for regulations on HFSS foods to replace the Responsibility Deal, while organisations, including Action on Sugar, are continuing to call for a sugar tax.