Following a long series of rowbacks and u-turns on the obesity strategy, it comes as a refreshing change to see affirmative action from the government.
So much so, The Grocer’s revelation that – with the backing of supermarket giants such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s, alongside suppliers like Nestlé and Mars – the Department of Health’s launch of industry-wide reporting on the “healthiness” of food and drink sales almost feels like a return to another era.
But that could be exactly the problem facing the plans unveiled this week. As well as having to overcome resistance from within the industry itself, they also face an uphill battle to convince campaign groups this is not just a case of a Responsibility Deal mark two.
Under plans drawn up by an industry working group boasting 15 of the biggest food and drink companies (although, interestingly, not Kellogg’s after its court battle on promotions), the plan is to launch a new reporting system using common metrics to show the proportion of “healthy” sales across all the UK’s major food and drink companies.
The aim is to provide campaign groups and shareholders alike with the sort of transparent information they need to keep up the pressure on food companies, and thereby provide the entire supply chain with an incentive to keep its foot on the reformulation accelerator.
The logic goes that even if the scheme is voluntary, once the likes of Tesco & co commit to new reporting based on health, then the supply chain will have little option but to follow suit.
There is a lot to like about the proposals, which stem originally from plans set out in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy in 2019 – albeit that was for a mandatory system of reporting, an idea which has been dismissed as too ‘nanny state’ by the Sunak regime.
The chaos of public health policy under the now defunct Public Health England (PHE), with its bombardment of unachievable health targets, had turned the obesity strategy into a laughing stock. Yet, a crisis threatening the future of the NHS and the economy is not funny.
Even with the likes of KFC and Deliveroo on the working group
It has long been obvious the government needs to chart a new path with a more streamlined and achievable set of ambitions, something ministers have now agreed to do in return for companies committing to the new data reporting.
There is also evidence that such an approach works. As The Grocer revealed earlier this month, the hounding of companies including Unilever, Nestlé and Tesco by ShareAction’s Healthy Markets Initiative (HMI) has, according to a study, resulted in a “significant shift” in their policies on health since it began in 2019.
While, yes, it will be industry-led, the new reporting system for all large firms has the potential to take that to a new level. It could lead to a race to the top among suppliers, rather than see PHE or its replacement, the OHID, try to drag a long tail of companies along to hit targets they don’t believe in and know will be missed.
However, the plans also face major barriers.
For starters, there is still understood to be fierce debate over what metrics should be used and how they are communicated by government and then, as an extension of the proposals, how they are communicated to consumers via new information on pack, which is being developed as a second phase of the work.
Somehow, the balance must be found between information that is too simplistic and limited, and bombarding the public with so much information it simply adds to the confusion. Such confusion that already exists from schemes like the nutrient profile model and traffic light labelling system.
The reporting will also inevitably face the familiar problem of how the out-of-home sector can be made to keep pace with supermarkets, especially given its current perilous state, even with the likes of KFC and Deliveroo on the working group.
The government will additionally have to win over industry sceptics with the Food & Drink Sector Council, having already raised fears the data will effectively allow rivals to the companies posting the data to use it against them to steal their business.
HFSS promotions and advertising
Meanwhile, the job of winning over the health lobby will be even harder.
Only last week nearly 40 campaign groups joined forces and called on ministers to revive Dimbleby’s plans for a swathe of taxes on HFSS products, which unlike his call for transparent data were completely ignored by ministers in their response to his strategy.
Convincing these groups to support industry-led, voluntary targets is going to be a huge challenge. Indeed The Grocer understands some within that lobby are planning to refuse to even talk to the government, despite being invited to talks when plans are unveiled next month.
But as one source involved in the plans admits, the biggest factor of all could be the backdrop of the looming general election, which as they say could either “make or kill it”.
Having an evidence-based, industry-wide obesity strategy with ambitious, yet achievable, targets is something that will appeal to voters, especially if influential bodies like ShareAction can start spreading the word it is having concrete results.
Yet, if Kier Starmer decides his party needs to take a tougher line against the food industry and use the government’s u-turns on HFSS promotions and advertising as a stick to beat them with, the new system could quicky bite the dust if Labour comes to power.
Much will depend on whether Starmer’s policy police, currently said to be going through potential manifesto pledges with a fine-tooth comb to ensure they have iron-clad financial credibility, decides this applies to taxes on health.
If these are deemed as too Corbynista, then the latest proposals might just stand a chance of making it beyond next year.