Fried Mars bar

Dietary challenge: more than a quarter of Scots are obese

More than a quarter of Scots are obese and almost two thirds are overweight. On almost every dietary metric, Scotland comes out worse than the UK so it is hardly surprising that the Scottish government should want to push the food industry to do more, faster, to tackle this. And in recent weeks, it has outlined a draft framework that includes a long list of reformulation targets covering nine categories.

Yet at a UK level, a number of food companies have already set themselves tough reformulation targets under the Responsibility Deal. So how do these compare against the Scottish targets and are plans north of the border achievable?

The approach taken by SNP ministers is strikingly different from the UK’s Department of Health. They have set their draft pledges for industry in-government, rather than developing them jointly.

Not only that, but the plans are much more prescriptive. The UK government has set broad health targets and let individual companies decide how best to achieve them - whether through reformulation, portion size changes or marketing. Under the calorie-reduction pledge earlier this year, for example, GSK said it would cut the sugar content of Lucozade Energy and Ribena by 10%, while Burton’s promised to offer more portion control packs and to cut calories where possible.

By contrast, the Scots appear dissatisfied with the progress made even in a fruit and veg pledge signed in 2011, in which leading supermarkets agreed to stock more healthier food, and have turned to very specific pledges. For example, the reformulation target for chocolate confectionery is to reduce satfat by 10% by 2015, against a 2010 baseline.

North and south of the border

Scots’ plans:

  • Sugar/calories: 4% reduction 2010-15 in soft drinks reduce savoury snack bags to under 30g and shrink chocolate bars
  • Satfat: 5% and 10% reductions 2010-15 in chocolate, biscuits, cakes, pies & pastries, potato-based products
  • In-store: ban on checkout confectionery, commitment to price promotions to support healthy choices, more healthy ‘meal deals’ and new healthy eating social marketing campaign
  • Salt: FSA targets to be met

The Responsibility Deal:

  • Sugar/Calories: 23 food and drink companies signed up to slash daily calorie intake by five billion
  • Satfat: Companies set to sign pledge in next few months to remove 100,000 tonnes of saturated fat from products
  • In-store: plans for in-store marketing to be skewed towards healthy eating and end to guilt lanes
  • Salt: 80 categories of food to get new targets by the end of the year, with new focus on hospitality sector

Punishing early movers?

The Scottish government argues that its approach ensures consistency. “The draft Scottish reformulation targets begin to provide the level playing field many companies tell us they want,” says a Scottish government spokeswoman. However, the industry fears that, far from setting a level playing field, early movers may be punished.

The Scottish government has set its targets against a baseline of 2010 to recognise the work that companies have already done but many did considerable reformulation work before that. For example, under the FSA satfat campaign, United Biscuits reduced the saturated fat content of McVitie’s Digestives, Hobnobs and Rich Tea by 50% in 2008 and then by another 50% a year later.

Such early movers could find it a lot harder to sign up than those who have taken a back seat. “It is not fair to punish the early adopters. You’ve got to recognise the progress that’s been made and we’ve been able to land that with the DH. With the Scottish, I don’t know,” cautions one source.

The content of the Scottish targets is also quite different from what’s covered in the Responsibility Deal. The big focus is on satfat. With the exception of sugary drinks, Scotland has chosen to set reformulation targets for categories because they contribute at least 2% to overall fat intake.

Satfat has yet to be directly covered by the Responsibility Deal, but The Grocer revealed in March plans for a new pledge to remove 100,000 tonnes of fats across the industry.

Sources close to the UK talks feel the Scottish targets on satfat could be unworkable.

Although the Scottish government has made some concessions, such as setting a lower 5% reduction target for non-plain and chocolate biscuits because they “will be more challenging to reformulate”, the feeling is that the targets are still too prescriptive. “It is relatively simple to remove salt from most foods but satfat is very different. Unlike salt, you have to replace it with something and that is much more challenging,” argues one source.

The same problem applies in relation to sugar in soft drinks, but at least in that case, the Scottish target to reduce the sugar content by 4% is thought to be achievable because there are new alternatives, albeit costlier ones, such as stevia.

In the case of satfat, some companies may well be already at the limit of what is technically achievable. They could be put off signing up to the Scottish framework - especially as it will still be entirely voluntary.

The industry has until August to give feedback and encourage compromise before the final version of the framework is published by the end of the year. The industry will be pushing hard to bring targets closer to the Responsibility Deal. “There is a danger of inconsistency through the UK, which would cause confusion and increase costs,” said one source.

The worst-case scenario concerns what comes next. Labour has already indicated it is unhappy with the Responsibility Deal and may well want to adopt a tough, top-down approach if it wins the next election in 2015. Scotland is then likely to want to be seen as going further than Whitehall. The industry could end up with spiralling demands from north and south of the border.