Chocolate aisle

A government report on one of its flasgship strategies in the fight against childhood obesity is to be published at least a year behind schedule, The Grocer can reveal.

It has emerged the sugar reduction report, which was due to be published last year, will not now surface until at least this autumn, more than six years after ministers promised a “structured and closely monitored” programme of reformulation.

Campaign groups said they were outraged at the delay, which showed the government was not serious in its efforts to tackle the obesity crisis.

Documents seen by The Grocer show the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) is now expected to publish the final results of the programme, first launched in 2016, later this year.

The sugar reduction programme, which was one of the key strategies along with the soft drinks levy launched under former PM Theresa May’s government, set out to slash sugar levels by 20% across a raft of HFSS products in the main categories consumed by children by 2021.

However, the voluntary programme was plunged into crisis when the last update, in 2020, revealed some categories had seen “little or no progress”, while others had seen massive increases in sugar levels.

Some categories, such as chocolate and sweet confectionery, had seen sugar levels virtually unchanged, while increased sales had led to a massive increase in the volume of sugar sold.

The new delay to the report comes with campaigners and retailers also urging the government to publish its promised response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, which came out last summer.

Ministers had promised a white paper within six months responding to the report – which included calls for a raft of new taxes on HFSS products – though sources say Boris Johnson is reluctant to adopt policies that may add to already soaring inflation.

“It is quite simply unacceptable if the publication of the final Sugar Reduction Report has once again been delayed, without any clear explanation,” said Barbara Crowther, director of the Children’s Food Campaign.

“It was originally due to be published in autumn 2021, then in early 2022, and whilst we understand the restructure of PHE and OHID caused some delays, it should not be a whole year late.

“We understand that the data collection and analysis was all completed last year. This is critical data that should be informing future government policy, not least the response to the National Food Strategy and the forthcoming Health Disparities paper, especially given the alarming rise in childhood obesity prevalence recorded in the most recent National Child Measurement Programme.

“We call on the Department for Health and Social Care to review and bring forward the publication of this report at the earliest opportunity.”

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, said: “If reports are to be believed, it’s outrageous that the government’s sugar reduction programme will be delayed, especially given the current ineffective sugar reduction programme plus the fact that childhood obesity has increased by around 50% during the pandemic.

“The prime minister must now act to control the food industry and come forward with coherent plans to prevent and reverse this crisis.”