With 100 days to go before the General Election, Labour leader Ed Miliband stepped up his campaign to be the next prime minister today, with a 10-year plan to revamp the NHS.
But with health clearly seen by Miliband as the issue on which to weaponise the party and inflict maximum damage on the Tories, it will be fascinating to see to what extent the two party’s differences – or lack of them - becomes an election issue which drags the food and drink industry into the fight.
Last week, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham and his deputy, Luciana Berger, outlined proposals including new caps on sugar, salt and fat levels in food aimed at children, such as cereals, soft drinks and crisps, and also proposed a new clampdown on advertising.
The move chimes with the latest attacks from the health lobby this week. Yesterday, the British Heart Foundation released research claiming 70% of parents with children aged 4 to 16 had been pestered by their children to buy “junk” food they have seen advertised on TV.
And tomorrow, Action on Sugar is due to release shock new figures on the sugar content in cereals.
Yet while Labour is right in tune with those calls, Berger made it clear when she was grilled by The Grocer last week that Labour was going to stop well short of the full on onslaught on the industry some had expected.
Labour’s public health policy review may have lasted more than two years, yet short of a promise to bring in plain packaging - a move immediately hijacked by ministers - there is barely a cigarette paper between the two main parties on some of the key issues despite the difference in tone.
While accusing the coalition of cosying up to the vested interests of the industry, Berger revealed Labour would stick with the voluntary approach. And while the Responsibility Deal may not survive in name, she told The Grocer the voluntary agreements it had resulted in would last at least a further three years if Labour came to power to allow time for moves such as the reductions in sugar, salt and fat already introduced by the industry to be assessed.
Berger revealed the clampdown of HFSS products would be conducted as a “partnership” with the industry, with a limited impact expected on those products which use devices such as cartoons or novelty gifts for their marketing, rather than a sweeping crackdown.
As for the war of junk food ads, Labour’s promise of a review is hardly a watershed moment, with both Ofcom and the ASA already probing the issue.
The report ‘In It Together: Labour’s new relationship with business’, which is supported by the likes of alcohol suppliers’ self-regulatory body the Portman Group, calls for a ‘no surprises’ approach to business policy, with regulation a measure of last resort. With such calls within its own party, it’s no wonder Labour abandoned its support for issues such as a sugar tax or minimum pricing long ago.
So as the latest shock claims for the health lobby emerge tomorrow, is there really much to fear for the industry, with both main parties committed to continue a voluntary approach?
The answer is yes. Most crucially, 100 days is an awful long time in politics and do not be surprised to see policy position swing wildly in the weeks that follow as politicians work out where they can score points.
Business friendly it may want to be, but if Labour senses it can benefit from accusations of government collusion with the “junk food” industry, it will go into battle as strongly as it is does over hospital beds.