It could be one way of meeting the challenges in the Health White Paper, says Julian Hunt

The dust has barely had time to settle on the government’s Public Health White Paper and already the food industry is having to address the challenges laid out in that weighty, if rather woolly, document. As those of you who have waded through the 200 or so pages of the White Paper know only too well, the industry has been told to work with the government and the FSA to develop ‘signpost’ labelling, reduce promotions to kids and fund education programmes.
There is deep concern across the industry that the White Paper has - as feared - gone for “short-term populism”. And the menacing language within the White Paper hasn’t helped matters (see feature right). But we are where we are - despite the high-profile campaign mounted by this magazine. So how should the food industry respond to the challenges set by the White Paper?
Part of the problem, of course, is that there is in reality no such thing as ‘the food industry’. Instead, there is a very loose coalition of organisations working in very different sectors - which makes it hard sometimes to deliver a consensus on key issues such as labelling or marketing.
Getting these different groups to put aside their differences and genuinely focus on delivering industry-wide solutions is going to be tough. But it can be done - and the alcoholic drinks industry has potentially shown the way.
Those who have read the White Paper have been surprised at the lack of attention that the alcoholic drinks industry has attracted - just a few paragraphs in the whole document. This poses obvious questions: is food perceived by government to be more dangerous to health than alcohol? Or has the alcoholic drinks industry done a better job at persuading John Reid & Co, as well as health campaigners, that it is already acting responsibly in the areas of labelling, advertising and promotions?
Well, clearly it’s to do with the fact that the alcohol industry has worked over a number of years to promote responsible drinking and to tackle the issues around alcohol misuse. And they have done it through the pan-industry Portman Group.
As the director of one leading drinks firm says: “The Portman Group was set up as our insurance policy. Getting all the different competitors to work together has not been plain sailing but the creation of the group has definitely benefited us all. There was nothing in the White Paper that was a surprise - we are already ahead of the game in most areas. Perhaps now the food industry could do with its own version of Portman.”
He is not alone in thinking that - some senior figures within the food sector have already come to a similar conclusion.
Others are reserving judgement. As Food and Drink Federation spokeswoman Christine Fisk says: “There is a world of difference between the abuse of alcohol and social issues around food and health. However, the White Paper calls for a food and drink advertising forum and the industry will be looking at all options as to how we can play an appropriate part in the health debate. It is far too early to speak about specific models for such a forum.”
But supporters of the idea found their thoughts echoed at last week’s Food Advertising Unit annual conference, where Hugh Burkitt, ceo of the Marketing Society, urged the industry to support the formation of a new organisation he christened ‘the Foodman Group’.
Burkitt, an advertising luminary whose career has included a stint working on the Portman Group’s complaints panel, explains why: “What the White Paper is specifically looking for is industry to introduce some element of self-regulation and in that situation the role of the Portman Group becomes even more important. The Portman Group is both a promotional body and a self-regulatory body and it seems to me that is exactly what the food industry is looking for at the moment.”
Better still, Burkitt says, the Portman Group does a great job for the alcohol industry for the “piffling” sum of just £2m a year.
Coincidentally, as Burkitt was giving his presentation in London, Jean Coussins, chief executive of the Portman Group, was telling a conference in Beaconsfield organised by European sugar industry body CEFS why her organisation had been so successful.
She pointed out that the Portman Group was a truly independent body, with a clearly defined role. And it had benefited the alcohol industry in a number of ways such as: the fostering of political trust and co-operation; the avoidance of statutory controls; and the generation of positive media coverage. All of which has been achieved because the Portman Group is definitely not a trade association that lobbies on behalf of its members.
The Portman Group was founded in 1989, at a time when lager louts were the story of the day and the alcohol industry was under fire. The group was initially responsible for public education and information. Then in the mid-1990s, on the back of the alcopops saga, its role was expanded and it became the industry’s self-regulatory body for marketing standards. Given its involvement in everything from proof-of-age cards to consumer advertising to developing independently enforced rules on the promotion of alcohol, the Portman Group is an extremely effective organisation.
There are clearly some important parallels to be drawn from the story of the Portman Group and they lead to the inevitable conclusion that forming a similar body could be one way for the food industry to get through the political minefield it faces.
The industry needs a body that can engage with policy makers; can promote the idea of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle; and, most important of all, encourage the responsible marketing of food and non-alcoholic drinks - particularly to kids.
But, as Burkitt warned the FAU conference, there are some big obstacles in the way - such as gaining a consensus view on the issues, drafting codes, sorting out funding - and time is running out.
Little wonder that when asked for an opinion, one drinks industry executive responded: “Hasn’t the horse already bolted from the stable?”
Well, we don’t think so. When The Grocer launched its Junk the Spin campaign, we wanted to support the industry’s case when it came to the food and health debate. Now the White Paper has been published, we believe the industry has a chance to take control of its destiny - rather than leave it to government and the FSA. And a Foodman Group is one way of doing just that.