Granted, there has been the odd fast-moving political event since the government put out its much-maligned Childhood Obesity Plan last August. Still, it is striking just how completely out of touch with reality today’s report by the Health Select Committee seems – and how MPs appear to have taken scant notice of the most damning evidence of where the biggest problems really lie
In raising, yet again, the idea of a mandatory clampdown on “unhealthy” promotions in supermarkets, the committee is returning to such well-trodden ground its members must have been able to clearly see the imprints of those who had gone before – and failed.
For the inquiry to put the focus on supermarkets promoting junk food, when it heard they had been holding a price war over Christmas on carrots and giving fruit away to children for nothing, seems completely bananas.
Even PHE, which had previously made a clampdown on promotions its number one call to ministers, appears to have given up the ghost on this one.
The committee heard from PHE in its evidence that supermarkets were moving away from the sort of bulk buy offers that it had previously claimed were driving the obesity crisis. PHE said the amount of food sold on promotion was already down to 37% from 40%, when its recommendations to government were made; the BRC says it’s more like 27%.
Driven by the threat of Aldi and Lidl, as much as any health agenda, supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, which ditched all bulk buys more than a year ago, have long turned their backs on these types of promotions to concentrate on a new battleground based on everyday low prices.
So, instead of flogging this dead horse, MPs on the committee would be better off looking at where there is alarming new evidence of barriers to the fight against obesity.
Last week, The Grocer revealed PHE had met a wall of silence in its efforts to measure the impact of the food being consumed through the out-of-home sector.
The Obesity Plan promised the programme of reformulation currently being undertaken by key industry sectors, with the first targets due out within days, would apply to all parts of the industry including retailers, manufacturers and the OOH sector: “For example, restaurants, takeaways and cafés.”
PHE was tasked with reviewing reductions achieved through analysis of sales data and food composition data every six months. But, as we revealed, it is struggling so badly to get data from the OOH sector it looks like it won’t even be able to publish a figure for the baseline of OOH sugar consumption, let alone up-to-speed nutritional data.
When asked, a raft of out-of-home companies have refused to even provide details of their bestselling products, leaving PHE to resort to offering confidentiality agreements in a bid to get them to come forward. That, and what it basically admits is guesswork.
To be fair to PHE, the blame for this data nightmare doesn’t rest with it but with those ministers who ludicrously claimed that a level playing field could be achieved with the OOH sector, based on the most flimsy of evidence.
It’s not just supermarkets, led by the BRC, that have been calling for regulation on this issue. Nestlé, in The Grocer’s pages a few weeks ago, was also calling for a debate on the need for new laws, with Dame Fiona Kendrick urging: “For action to match the scale of the public health challenge, the entire UK food and drink industry needs to act, including the out-of-home sector, for example.”
As for ministers, they seem to be as much in cloud cuckoo land as the Health Committee. When asked during the inquiry about progress on OOH, the health minister, Nicola Blackwood, said there had been “encouraging progress”. Her evidence? “In particular, Subway has committed to reformulating some of its products, and we are in conversation with some other industry partners. That is one of the most encouraging parts of the progress that we have made so far, as that was one of the areas we were most worried about.”
Oh, well that’s okay then, at least Subway is on the case. What about all the countless other OOH operators for whom the Obesity Plan has had no impact whatsoever?
There is precious little point debating the promotions shoppers find in stores when those same customers can walk down any street and find themselves bombarded with cheap offers of junk food from takeaways whose contribution to obesity PHE can only guess.