Scales obesity

‘Bold’ and ‘brave’ were the words the health committee pinched from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver today to sum up the approach needed by David Cameron to tackle childhood obesity.

But another b word sums up the state of mind of anyone who thinks the PM is likely to agree to most of its key recommendations – barmy.

Not only has Cameron already ruled out a sugar tax – one of recommendations the committee has come up with – but, on closer inspection, the MPs’ other big asks are also full of gaping holes.

It’s not so much the intention behind the committee’s proposals, which pretty much reflects that of the recent PHE report on sugar reduction, but the complete disconnect from reality that stands out.

Casting aside the sugar tax, the biggest issues it raises are a call for sweeping reformulation targets across all categories as well as proposals to ban, or at least cut down on, the promotion of “unhealthy” food.

“A voluntary approach should be adopted with the clear proviso that if the industry does not respond comprehensively and swiftly to voluntary sugar reduction targets then regulatory action will quickly follow,” says the report on the reformulation issue.

Not stopping there, it adds: “The government should also introduce a parallel programme of reformulation to reduce the overall calorie content of food, including reducing the levels of fats.”

The response from the British Retail Consortium was telling: it clear there was absolutely no appetite among any of the major supermarkets for the committee’s plans for a voluntary system of sugar reduction targets, let alone extending that to cover fat as well.

Retailers clearly have no desire for a Responsibility Deal Mark 2, yet the government is in effect being asked to get the industry to agree targets to reduce sugar and fat across categories including soft drinks, confectionery, biscuits, home cooking, bread and morning goods, milk and cream… the list goes on.

Each one of those brings with it its own bureaucratic nightmare, including what is the evidence for action in each case, what are the technical limitations on reformulation and how to get a level playing field across sectors. And that’s without discussing the huge questions the proposal raises about consumer choice. Even if the government could get retailers to sign up, which it clearly won’t, how would it get suppliers to come on board?

But even this is nowhere near as much of a minefield as the committee’s recommendation of regulation against the promotion of “unhealthy” foods.

Here, at least, the committee realises there is no way in a million years that retailers would sign up to a voluntary ban on promotions across a huge range of food and drink. So instead, it looks like the committee would expect a Conservative government, with a self-declared anti-red-tape agenda, to legislate.

The scope of legislation required would make a sugar tax on soft drinks look like a walk in the park by comparison. Indeed, if the government were to go down this path, it is hard to imagine any other outcome than prolonged legal challenges in the UK, across Europe and potentially from products around the world that end up branded “unhealthy” under criteria as yet to be decided.

As Professor Susan Jebb, so involved in Responsibility Deal Mark 1, told the committee: the idea of this enormous HFSS crackdown unravels once when you start to consider the practicalities.

“It’s dead easy to say that we need to rebalance promotions,” she told MPs, “but do we mean we need to increase the healthy and decrease the unhealthy, or do we genuinely mean we should shift the balance? That might actually raise the whole level of promotions. Secondly, if you were trying to write some legislation what would you write? Through the Responsibility Deal discussions, I have to say that I was really struggling to think what it was, in a very precise, targeted way, that one would need to do, which would not lead to compensatory actions by manufacturers elsewhere. “

PHE also admits that it has no evidence on how the crackdown could work, yet that did not stop it from making it priority number one and it is symptomatic of how the war on sugar has morphed into a series of huge asks that are far removed from the real world.

Surely the biggest priority for the government when it eventually comes forth with its strategy is that it is measurable, realistic and – above all – evidence-based.

Setting the industry sugar reduction targets that are gradual and achievable (a line taken straight from Action on Sugar’s campaign aims) is going to be difficult enough, without the government trying to make all food “healthy” overnight.