Which? has just published new research assessing the progress made by 10 leading food manufacturers and retailers to help people to eat healthily. We compared them against a range of actions - from clear nutrition labelling to responsible marketing practices.
There were examples of good practice and The Co-operative Group in particular stood out for a range of actions. But on the whole, the research highlighted that a more ambitious and comprehensive approach is needed in order to make it easier to opt for healthy choices.
Two new government reports have reinforced the scale of the problem. The latest findings from the National Child Measurement Programme show that one in three children leaving primary school are either obese or overweight. Defra’s Family Food Survey, which looks at trends in food purchasing, also showed that many people are finding it difficult to eat healthily in the current economic climate.
It seems we have been talking about tackling the barriers to healthier eating for years, but we still aren’t making enough progress. Price is increasingly dominating people’s purchases - but only The Co-op Group and Sainsbury’s have any policy in place to include a balance of healthier choices in their special offers. Retailers have all committed to using traffic light labelling on the front of food packs, but none of the manufacturers have. Companies have taken transfats out of their products, but progress on reducing saturated fat, sugar and calories is much more mixed and more action is needed on reducing salt.
“It’s time the government gave the Deal some real impetus”
The Responsibility Deal is now the government’s main driver for change, but our research found it was failing to incentivise food companies to go above and beyond the standards set by the pledges. It is also not tackling the inaction of those at the bottom, such as Iceland, which came out as the poorest performing of the retailers against our criteria. It still hasn’t signed pledges on salt or calorie reduction, for example.
It’s time the government gave the Deal some real impetus. Action has to go further, faster and look at new areas such as responsible marketing. Existing pledges also need to go further, and areas such as calorie reduction need clearer, more specific targets.
Failing to take action is no longer an option. Our consumer research consistently shows that people expect more action from the government and food industry to help them eat healthily.
If more action is not taken voluntarily, the government has to show that it means business by naming and shaming - and, ultimately, being prepared to bring in legislation where voluntary action fails.
Sue Davies is chief policy officer at Which?