The food & drink industry faces a mandatory programme to cut sugar by up to 50% under DH plans that have won backing from most major supermarkets.

The BRC announced this week that retailers including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose would support new sugar targets in an attempt to repeat the successful approach to salt reduction launched under the FSA in 2007.

The reformulation drive is set to form a key plank of David Cameron’s childhood obesity strategy, expected to be unveiled in February.

Sources suggested the strategy would also include moves such as more powers for local councils to ban junk food outlets near schools, a ban on all HFSS ads to children under 16 and moves to limit promotion of ‘unhealthy’ food. A tax on sugar-added drinks, recommended this week by the House of Commons health committee and in October by DH executive body, Public Health England (PHE), is still seen as an outside possibility, despite being repeatedly ruled out by the government.

“Reformulation far more effective than tax”

Industry reformulation will achieve far more than a sugar tax, according to the chairman of campaign group Action on Sugar.

Professor Graham MacGregor, who spearheaded the group’s Sugar Awareness Week this week, described the decision of the BRC to support mandatory targets as an “amazing ” breakthrough.

“Reformulation is far more effective than a tax,” said MacGregor, although he pledged the group would continue to call for a tax of sugary drinks and in future extend it to diet drinks if suppliers failed to reduce sweetness levels.

This is part of a six-point plan put forward by AOS this week, which also included a call for an independent nutrition agency to monitor the reformulation programme as well as a ban on promotions and advertising of junk food to children.However, in the wake of the committee’s report, retailers and health campaigners urged Cameron to reject MPs’ calls for a “voluntary approach” to reformulation, which they said “should be adopted with the clear proviso that if the industry does not respond comprehensively and swiftly then [further] regulatory action will quickly follow”.

The BRC said reformulation targets must be mandatory and imposed across all sectors of the industry including restaurants, fast food outlets, and coffee shops, where nearly a fifth of meals were consumed in the past year, according to the latest PHE figures.

“Our position has moved because we now have agreement from the vast majority of retailers for targets focused on sugar,” said BRC head of food Andrew Opie. “But they are also agreed on the principle that this must involve all sectors. We want to be very clear that a voluntary system will not work. We tried it with the Responsibility Deal but failed. If we want to make this big push on sugar the only way to do it is for it to be mandatory.”

The BRC also backed calls from campaigners including Action on Sugar for the targets to be overseen by the FSA, although it stopped short of supporting proposals from the health committee for the reformulation drive to be extended to cover fat reduction.

Opie said retailers were adamant new targets should be based on absolute amounts of sugar reduction for individual categories, not percentages, which he claimed would stop companies who have made big reductions in sugar from being disadvantaged.

PHE’s report Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action, claimed a reformulation programme covering biscuits, buns, cakes, pastries, fruit pies and puddings, confectionery, yoghurt, fromage frais and dairy desserts, cereals and table sugar would cut adult sugar consumption by an average of 17 grams a day, a move which would bring adults below what DH experts privately regard as the acceptable upper limit for consumption.

The reduction would be even greater in children, with falls of up to 26g per day forecast.

However, supermarkets are on collision course with the FDF, whose director general Ian Wright claimed this week that sugar reduction was best achieved “not through additional government-imposed regulation but instead through an accountable industry partnership with government that drives behaviour change, builds on the progress made on reformulating products and limiting portions and which goes further in preventing advertising HFSS foods being aimed at children”.