When I took over the reins at the FDF earlier this year, I assumed I would spend my time talking about skills, productivity and sustainability.
British food and drink producers’ hard-earned reputation for quality is driving export sales of close to £13bn. We employ around 400,000 people in the UK, and many more across the supply chain. We are on track to meet our 0% waste to landfill target by the end of the year and this year met a stretching carbon reduction target six years early.
But instead of being fully able to extol the contribution of UK food & drink, since the summer I have had to defend the sector from unjust and unrelenting attack by the health lobby.
It is right that FDF and its members are fully engaged in discussions around helping customers enjoy healthier diets. However, I find it impossible to reconcile that while leading experts praise the food and drink made in this country as among the best and safest in the world, others are determined to characterise businesses in our sector as irresponsible.
Consumers have never before had a wider choice of food and drink at every price. For every favourite there is almost always a low fat, sugar, salt or calorie alternative on shelf. Moreover, many companies are also renovating their iconic products for health, taking on the inherent risks of changing winning formulas. That people in industry persist in driving change in their businesses, even when the risks are high, not to speak of the costs, and when positive recognition for action is rarely forthcoming, is testament to how seriously we’re taking this issue.
Artificial trans fats offer a case in point. Some health commentators would have consumers believe they are lurking in every aisle, when in fact they were virtually eliminated from the UK years ago following a sustained programme of reformulation.
Almost daily, the public are told sugars are ‘hidden’. This is irrespective of the fact that ‘total sugars’ are clearly shown on labelling, which itself was voluntarily developed and adopted by industry over a decade before regulators caught up and made it a legal requirement.
I spend many hours each day speaking to business leaders in UK food and drink. FDF and our members fully recognise the scale of the obesity challenge - and note I don’t say childhood obesity as we believe we must address this issue for adults and families, not just children.
At FDF, we are working with partners in broadcasting, advertising, and across the whole food chain to find real-world solutions that will help government with the development of its childhood obesity strategy. We want to work with all stakeholders in this debate to find solutions that will actually work.
As we come to the end of Sugar Awareness Week, which saw the publication of the Health Committee’s childhood obesity report, there has once again been significant blame directed at food & drink producers and a laser focus on the role of sugar in public health. We don’t think a focus on sugar alone is at all helpful when the weight of evidence shows the causes of obesity are far more complex than any single nutrient, food or drink. We also don’t think it’s fair to attack this industry’s workforce, and believe that industry professionals should speak out against this treatment.
It is our sincere hope that the government’s strategy will be as wholly integrated as promised - addressing education, transport, town planning, health at work and physical activity, as well the dietary change that many need. We want this because we too want to shift the needle on childhood and adult obesity. We also need stakeholders in this debate to wake up to the complexity of the challenge that we are all facing.
Ian Wright is director general of the Food and Drink Federation