The industry must take more action to tackle childhood obesity, the Westminster Diet and Health Forum heard. Elaine Watson reports

The panel’s response to Glenn’s comments showed that trotting out the standard industry line about no foods being inherently unhealthy won’t wash. However, as the debate progressed, it soon became clear that whether PepsiCo or Cadbury are to

blame for rising levels of obesity is not really the issue anymore. Even those who don’t believe the food industry is to blame for the problem are now convinced that it has to be part of the solution.

Demonising snack food firms or banning junk food ads almost certainly isn’t the solution, agreed Professor Gerard Hastings, who led the recent FSA-commissioned research into the relationship between food advertising and children’s eating habits.

When this apparent contradiction was highighted, Jowell was quick to respond. Instead of whingeing about being between a rock and hard place, suppliers should share ideas for promoting healthy lifestyles, to prove they take the issue seriously and to avoid the kind of backlash that Cadbury had suffered.

But the question that still needs to be answered is: how far will they have to go?

There is no such thing as good or bad food, just healthy or unhealthy diets, PepsiCo’s Martin Glenn insisted at last week’s Westminster Diet & Health Forum debate supported by The Grocer. Glenn said: “My kids have all drunk Pepsi and eaten crisps. But they also eat other foods and they play a lot of sport. The issue of TV advertising is a convenient sideshow.”

Appealing though this argument might be to a large snack food producer, it was starting to wear a little thin with the other top names gathered to debate the issue of whether TV advertising is to blame for kids’ obesity. They included Debra Shipley, the MP who is trying to get a Bill through Parliament to outlaw ads aimed at kids, who slammed the UK’s “appalling food culture”. Shipley & co argue Glenn is wrong because people don’t eat junk food in moderation, which is why poor diet is such a big problem.

Sure, some foods are quite obviously better for you than others, said Food Standards Agency chairman Sir John Krebs. But retailers and suppliers have to work harder to persuade shoppers to buy more of them. The challenge is this: how to persuade consumers, many of whom already know they are not eating a great diet, to make those healthier choices.

The answer, he said, is to engage consumers in a positive way and help them make the right choices. And this should start at the supermarket.

Given that the top four food retailers control well over half the market, they have the power to make an enormous difference to our eating habits, he said. For a start, they should get rid of confectionery at checkouts and use gondola ends to promote healthy
foods, he suggested. Point of sale advertising should also be reserved for healthy foods, while every less healthy product should have a more healthy variant.

Another boffin, Dr Brian Young of the University of Exeter, reminded delegates that eating habits are formed by the age of five.

Hastings said that in an ideal world the industry would use its marketing power and expertise to make healthy foods more attractive to consumers. Who wouldn’t want to see David Beckham or Britney Spears endorsing carrots instead of hair gel and soft drinks? The harsh reality, as Food Advertising Unit director Jeremy Preston observed, is that fresh vegetable producers do not have any money to spend on advertising. And Britney Spears and co aren’t cheap.

In the meantime, said Sir John, suppliers could at least make labelling more meaningful. Simply listing the fat or calorie
content of a chocolate bar is not good enough, he insisted. Information like this is utterly meaningless to consumers if they cannot put it in context. Is 3g of fat a good thing? Or more helpfully, does this chocolate bar contain all of the recommended daily allowance of fat or sugar in a single serving?

Although a traffic light labelling system to help shoppers identify good, bad and ugly foods is probably too simplistic, he reasoned, clearer signposts are needed to help make healthy choices easier.

Holding up a can of pasta shapes that contained more salt than the average adult should consume in one day, he warned suppliers in the audience that the FSA would scrutinise the nutritional content of a range of processed foods in the coming weeks and publish the results. While supermarkets and suppliers are operating in a highly competitive marketplace, added Sir
John, they are not simply responding to, but creating consumer demand for their products, and that meant they have to take more responsibility.

If the industry did not get its act together quickly, he added, the government would be forced to legislate.

However, Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, certainly was not looking for statutory solutions. She put forward the idea of a self-regulatory body for the food industry along the lines of the Portman Group for the drinks industry. Likewise, moves to restrict celebrity endorsements of unhealthy products during kids’ viewing hours are not on the government’s agenda. “I’m not going to tell David Beckham what he can and cannot sponsor,” she said.

The government’s strategy on healthy eating will be published in the autumn, after it receives advice from Ofcom, which is reviewing the advertising code, and the FSA, which is looking at food promotion to kids. Ofcom’s Sarah Thane admitted the industry cannot sit back and do nothing, but warned against populist interventions.

In the meantime, public health minister Melanie Johnson will hold further meetings with food suppliers to discuss how to cut fat, sugar and salt in their products.

But the government line in the forum on what steps manufacturers could take to promote healthy lifestyles was not entirely clear. Cadbury’s Get Active promotion, which encouraged children to collect chocolate wrappers to buy sports equipment for schools, was not helpful, insisted Johnson. “We did not support Get Active and I hope we don’t see a similar initiative again.”

Moments later, however, Tessa Jowell urged manufacturers to look at “ways of engaging children in physical activity” and lamented the fact that investment in such initiatives might be lost because of the firestorm of bad publicity it caused. The government, she said, did not dissociate itself from Get Active.