health campaigners are hopeful of a more constructive relationship with the food and drink industry, after the two sides came together for talks aimed at finding “common ground” in the war on sugar.
Several major suppliers, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, took part in two hours of discussions in London last week, hosted by the Food and Drink Federation and the British Soft Drinks Association.
With the Department of Health’s Responsibility Deal widely believed to be on its last legs in its current form - regardless of who wins the general election - industry leaders said the idea behind the meeting was to allow both sides in the sugar debate to look at areas where they could agree on action.
Afterwards, chairman of Action on Sugar Professor Graham MacGregor told The Grocer he now had a better understanding of the work being done by the industry. “Some of these people are obviously starting to seriously reformulate,” he said.
“There is good work going on in areas such as biscuits and soft drinks, and I felt at least this meeting showed industry is prepared to sit down and listen. I came out of it feeling encouraged.”
One industry source who attended the meeting added: “The Responsibility Deal has come to an end effectively, and it’s important we work together to find areas of common ground.”
Reformulation in fizzy drinks was a key part of the discussion, with the sector having already been singled out for possible action by the DH. It is understood both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo stressed their huge spending on low and zero-calorie products at the meeting.
Another contentious area was the role of physical exercise and whether the industry was trying to pass the buck by stressing its importance rather than concentrating on removing sugar from products.
However, despite the positive noises coming out of both camps, no actual agreements were found on contentious subjects such as Action on Sugar’s call for a set of targets for sugar reduction. MacGregor admitted a sugar tax was “not a realistic possibility,” given opposition to the idea from both the Conservative and the Labour parties.
Another health campaigner at the meeting said it had shown there were still “real divides” between how far different companies were willing to go.
“I do feel it was a genuine attempt to start some engagement, but the true test will be what they are prepared to put on the table,” said Malcolm Clark, director of the Children’s Food Campaign.