With the General Election in mind, Which? has published “A Government for all consumers”, setting out the big consumer issues and measures voters will want to see from the next government. And food is an area where the next government needs to do more.
UK consumers expect a secure supply of safe food that is honestly labelled and clearly priced, but the framework for overseeing food standards and policy is becoming ever-more fragmented.
Consumers need to be involved in developing a national food strategy that unites different government departments and responds effectively to the many challenges facing the food system - from obesity to climate change and food price volatility. People’s views need to be at the heart of decisions about the type of food production methods and supply chains we have, including the role for new technologies.
“Food is an area where the next government needs to do more”
Price and affordability must be key elements. Our research repeatedly shows that food prices are a primary concern, as the supermarket price wars reinforce. Yet, it is still difficult to work out which products are best value because of misleading special offers and inconsistent unit pricing. The government therefore needs to simplify unit pricing legislation and ensure that the review of pricing practices guidance results in offers that genuinely give a better deal.
Food quality is crucial too. People expect to be able to make informed choices about what they want to eat, trust that food is what it says it is and know where it comes from. Our research continues to find problems, including lamb takeaways that don’t have any lamb in them, fish substitution and incorrectly labelled goats cheese. The Elliott report has provided the foundations for a more resilient supply chain that tackles fraud and needs to be effectively implemented.
Ensuring a strong Food Standards Agency is a vital part of this. It needs to lead to a more robust system of enforcement, making more effective use of limited local resources, establishing a proactive food crime unit and ensuring effective meat controls. Close work with the new Food Standards Scotland will be crucial, as will links with EU and international networks.
Diet and health also needs greater government attention. Many people are struggling to make healthier choices and two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese. The Public Health Responsibility Deal has made some improvements, such as salt reduction and energy labelling, but is inadequate compared with the scale of the challenge.
The government must step up the pace and breadth of change and intervene directly where voluntary action is ailing.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?