Scales obesity

Occasionally you encounter a contribution to a contentious topic that makes you stop and think. The recent McKinsey report on obesity has that kind of impact.

The report recognises at the outset that “no single solution creates sufficient impact to reverse obesity: only a comprehensive, systemic program of multiple interventions is likely to be effective.” Personal responsibility and education are necessary but not in themselves enough - we must change the environment that shapes physical activity and nutritional behaviour. 

“The most powerful interventions lie squarely with the food industry”

The most powerful interventions lie squarely with the food industry, or “Big Food” as journalists habitually call it. According to McKinsey, reducing portion sizes, reformulating products and extending their ranges of healthy options are all judged to have the biggest potential impact on obesity. Governments, by contrast, have a more modest role. Influencing school curricula appears to be the most significant form of intervention while fat and sugar taxes, public health campaigns and creating cycle lanes have ­little effect.

The problem for food producers and retailers is how to behave competitively in a market where, to achieve progress, everyone needs to move in the same direction at broadly the same time and where there are currently no sanctions for doing otherwise.

This is the conundrum implicit in the Responsibility Deal - behaving competitively may be “irresponsible.” 

McKinsey rather ducked this by simply saying that: “New forms of cross-industry collaboration and support from government have the best chance of overcoming these challenges.” Now there’s an agenda and a half.

Unfortunately, in the UK the timing for any positive action is unpropitious. Five months away from polling day, the current political agenda might as well be on another planet. Why tell a large percentage of voters they’re fat, lazy and self-indulgent when you’re begging for their votes? 

Even after the election, whatever sort of administration emerges will have other preoccupations. So there’s no alternative - Big Food will have to show what self-help can do.

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant