In the blue corner stands UK food plc. In the red are Labour MP Debra Shipley and Consumers' Association chief Sheila McKechnie. Last week, round one in the bout over how to create a healthier nation got off to a lively start when Cadbury Trebor Bassett was forced to defend it's £9m Get Active - Free Spots Kit 4 Schools marketing campaign in the face of attacks by consumer groups.
The Food Commission and the Consumers' Association accused CTB of encouraging kids to eat copious amounts of chocolate in order to gain sports equipment.
Neither side had an obvious advantage at the end of round one, and the fight shows every sign of going the full 12 rounds.
Healthy eating has shot up the political agenda over the past few months, with the industry held to account as never before.
In a fight that promises to be bloody, the victor will be the one that wins the hearts and minds of consumers and government.
This week Stourbridge MP Shipley delivered the latest body blow when her Children's Television (Advertising) Bill passed its first parliamentary hurdle. The Bill calls for a period of time each day when children's TV is free from food and drink advertising. It received its First Reading unopposed and the Second Reading is scheduled for July 11.
"Little children watching independent TV are daily bombarded with images of happy boys and girls eating high fat, high sugar and high content food and drink," Shipley said. "The cost [of obesity and diabetes] to the NHS is approximately £5bn a year. This is an expense met by the taxpayer, not the multi-billion pound food and drink industry."
Her comments reinforced earlier warnings by investment bank JP Morgan to companies such as Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes and PepsiCo to be careful about how they enticed people to buy their products if they wanted to avoid the sort of litigation faced by McDonald's last year.
Throwing out the US teenagers' lawsuit that claimed McDonald's was responsible for their obesity, Judge Robert Sweet said in January: "It is not the place of the law to protect them against their own excesses." But as Food and Drink Federation deputy director general Martin Paterson says: "When lawyers start to sniff an opportunity to make money, it opens up another front."
Then there was last month's launch of the World Health Organization's independent Expert Report on diet. This will serve as the basis for developing a global strategy, to be finalised in January 2004, aiming to combat the growing burden of chronic diseases. The report claims to contain the best available scientific evidence on the relationship of diet, nutrition and physical activity to chronic diseases but has been greeted sceptically by the industry. "The WHO report had pretty stark claims and demands," says Paterson. "The science is a matter of opinion, there are a lot of sweeping statements."
It is not surprising the FDF is on the defensive. There is a groundswell of opposition to the industry, with the situation compared to the one long faced by the tobacco industry. At the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance conference in April, Laura Haynes, director of brand consultancy Appetite, asked confectionery manufacturers whether they could imagine the content of food being regulated, being told where they could sell their products, or to have health warnings on packets. "They looked at me as if I were mad. But 25 years ago the tobacco firms thought such statements were mad."
The biggest worry for suppliers is legislation. The UK government, like that of other western nations, is concerned about footing the bill for an increasingly unhealthy nation. According to Hazel Blears MP, minister for public health, in 15 years' time the government could be spending every penny of today's health budget on diabetes alone. Speaking at the Westminster Diet & Health Forum, she said: "Diet and health are shooting up the political agenda. One reason is staring us in the face ­ diet tackles the big killers in this country. To be effective we need stiff action at both national and local level. Government telling people what to do is not going to be effective."
Food Standards Agency chairman Sir John Krebs says: "The fundamental question is how much is individual choice and how much there is the need to legislate." But the CA knows what it wants. "We would prefer regulatory solutions," says McKechnie. "The forces countering the health message are much more powerful than people believe. Industry is becoming more subtle in its defence against people committed to change. Battle one is to get food issues out of the control of producers."
The food industry is already highly regulated, Paterson says. "There are a lot of eyes staring hungrily around the industry campfire to see what damage they can do. We recognise we have a part of play in addressing the problem but don't believe we are the root cause."
Changes have been made, says MLC consumer marketing manager Chris Lamb, but due to consumer demand, not government pressure. In the 1950s-1970s, the fat in beef was 25%, pork 30% and lamb 31%. Today it is 5%, 4% and 8% respectively.
Sainsbury is one of the retailers leading the fightback. This week it joined childcare charity Kids' Club Network to fund a research project called Food for Thought, studying the impact of diet on children's health and education.
The British Retail Consortium delivered another industry left hook when it published a report outlining the measures supermarkets are taking to encourage their customers to opt for healthier food choices. And next week the FDF and FSA will announce an agreed reduction in salt content in soups, sauces and cereals. "The key is information and education," says Paterson.
Cadbury's defence is that its campaign is about grabbing market share ­ not increasing consumption. But Haynes of Appetite says this is no defence. "Cigarette brands said it was not about getting people to buy more cigarettes but about convincing them to change brands, and look where it got them." She says the industry needs to stop taking defensive action and look to product innovation. "It's a major corporate issue, not just one for marketing departments. It is possible to create products consumers desire that also answer health issues."
CA's McKechnie has promised to "spend a lot of time making consumers very angry indeed" about the industry's role promoting unhealthy food. It needs to fight off this threat through real innovation and insight. Otherwise it will not be the government delivering the knockout blow. It will be the consumer.