The level of obesity in the UK over the past three decades has more than trebled: 25% of the population is now obese and a further 37% overweight. The economic burden on society, according to McKinsey’s Overcoming Obesity report, is nearly £47bn per year and only likely to rise as obesity levels increase.
It’s little wonder food manufacturers are under pressure to do their bit to tackle the issue. Research conducted annually by Populus among MPs, policy shapers, journalists and NGOs indicates key opinion formers are more critical of the food and drink industry than at any time in the past four years. The rhetoric from health NGOs has ramped up significantly, with some suggesting large manufacturers are obstructing urgently needed action on reformulation in much the same way as ‘Big tobacco’ did.
In this febrile environment, the food industry’s traditional response - that responsibility ultimately lies with the individual - is losing its potency. Most stakeholders agree a broad coalition of support is required to address the crisis effectively, one which combines government intervention, industry reformulation, healthcare provision adjustments and consumer education.
Counterintuitively, this approach puts more pressure on food and drink manufacturers. Firstly, because it increases the likelihood of further regulation in the UK. This is supported by 68% of stakeholders who say stricter regulation of the food industry is essential to reducing obesity, and by at least half of MPs and PPCs, irrespective of the General Election outcome.
“Manufacturers are under pressure to do their bit to tackle obesity”
Secondly, the ‘coalition of support’ approach to tackling obesity makes it more likely that manufacturers could be pushed to the periphery of the debate with the introduction of new groups to the discussion - in particular, supermarkets. Increasingly, the health lobby and politicians are encouraging supermarkets to exert their significant influence on food and drink makers by, for example, removing confectionery from checkout aisles, reducing shelf space for ‘unhealthy’ products and pushing for clearer labelling. The supermarkets, struggling to find positive communication narratives to offset negative stories of shrinking profits and the challenge of the discounters, are willing to be seen as taking the lead in curbing obesity.
The risk for manufacturers is their ability to manage the debate is taken out of their hands. It is already happening; when stakeholders were asked which food manufacturer is best placed to address the big issues facing the industry, a quarter said ‘none’ and a further 9% said supermarkets rather than manufacturers.
Much more needs to be done to extend the debate from ‘calories in’ - reformulating and labelling calorie content - to ‘calories out’ - increasing the UK investment in prevention activities such as exercise and health campaigns.
Tackling obesity is about getting the balance right. The reputation challenge, however, won’t wait for that. The scales of blame will remain tipped towards food manufacturers for some time to come.
David Racadio is head of syndicated stakeholder research at Populus