In November last year international obesity taskforce president Professor Phillip James warned that food and drink suppliers needed to learn from the tobacco industry when it came to the dangers of ignoring health issues. "They must recognise the dangerous position they are in. Food and drink manufacturers will be blamed for all the problems," he said.
Only last month, health experts called for king-size snacks to be banned and for confectionery firms to sign up to a nutritional code. The growing availability of cheaply priced, over-sized' sweets and big bottles of soft drinks were held responsible for a nation of fatties who are more likely to buy products such as the Mars Big One, which is a third larger than a standard bar, and costs only 15p more.
Mike Webber, director general of the Biscuit, Cake and Chocolate Confectionery Alliance, says that demonising the bigger products is too easy. "They are not the problem, it's the shift in lifestyles," he insists.
Salt also comes under attack, and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition has asked the industry to reduce the level of salt in processed foods. It points out that evidence of links between salt intake and blood pressure is too strong to ignore.
The Food Commission is dismissed by some in the food and drinks industry as a single-issue pressure group, but its views are music to the media's ears. The commission's recent claims that the level of salt in crisps had almost doubled during the past 25 years, and had also increased in baked beans, were given plenty of column inches.
Snacks industry an easy target
Constantly pointing the finger of blame at the industry is a source of frustration for Walkers chief executive Martin Glenn who says bluntly: "We do want to help solve obesity, but blaming food manufacturers is a bit like blaming car manufacturers for traffic congestion."
Glenn believes the snacks industry is an easy target for food interest groups intent on criticising food firms for causing the nation's health problems. "We work on the principle that there is no such thing as junk food, only junk diets. Crisps are not junk food - they are acceptable snacks that help fill a gap during the day and play a role in the balanced diet."
Looking at salt levels in crisps and snacks over the past 10 years, he says they have dropped 25%. He points to the relaunched Walkers Salt & Shake which contains a sachet of salt, allowing the consumer to decide how much salt to use.
The Food and Drink Federation is acting with the Food Standards Agency and talking with the industry about a further reduction in salt levels in food particularly in breakfast cereal and sauces and to start labelling it as salt' rather than sodium. An FDF spokeswoman says: "We don't have an agenda which demands a certain level of reduction by the industry. We want the industry to produce its own targets."
The UK has one of the lowest fruit and vegetable intakes per capita in Europe and this is blamed on a love of snacks and fatty food: one in five Britons is obese and more children are now growing outwards as well as upwards. The Food Commission says advertising is a major cause and points to the hundreds of complaints that its Parents Jury has received about the way the food industry markets unhealthy products to children. Co-ordinator Annie Seeley says up to 99% of all food products advertised during kids TV are high in fat, sugar and/or salt. "Ideally there would be restrictions on the use of salt, sugars, colourings, flavourings, flavour enhancers and unhealthy fats in food products intended for consumption by children,"she says.
Julie Orsi, a Birds Eye Wall's nutritionist, defends her company's advertising which she says is aimed at the main household shopper. "Captain Birds Eye advertising appeals to mums and kids, but it doesn't engender pester power," she says. BEW also points out that it is lowering the level of saturated fat contained in its range.
There are no laws governing the timing of snack foods' broadcast advertising, nor its target audience, but this could change. In Sweden advertising aimed at children under the age of 12 is banned, as are ads before or after children's programmes.
In the UK, the government is toughening up on labelling. Its watchdog, the FSA, believes consumers find food labels confusing: in a recent study a quarter of those taking part said labels did not contain enough information. Nearly a third (29%) looked for the calorie content on a label, an increase on the 21% in 2000.
The Consumers' Association often names and shames manufacturers for misleading claims about products. It has firm ideas on how the industry should change and they include: the abolition of fat-free claims where a percentage is expressed; an explanation of low fat' and light'; a requirement that health claims are vetted; criteria so that foods which are high in fat, sugar or salt are not able make health claims; and mandatory labelling of the eight main nutrients. An Association spokeswoman says: "We are calling on food manufacturers to stop taking advantage of consumers and instead take responsibility by helping consumers who wish to make a healthy choice." An FSA task force has recommended improved labelling of all ingredients on all foods, clearer allergen information, and support for manufacturers which are determined to remove nuts from their production. It also suggests reducing space for branding and increasing the label size.
On the subject of allergens, FSA scientists have developed a test that can detect as little as one part in 10 million of peanut in processed food. When fully developed, companies should be able to check their products rather than slap on a "may contain peanuts" label.
All these issues could eventually come to a head as the EU is co-ordinating a wide consultation process about the food industry. It has been talking to industry, governments and pressure groups about a more comprehensive approach to legislation about food claims and labelling is high on the agenda. Its proposals on nutritional, functional and health claims made for foods should come out later this year.
Webber has reservations about some of the impending legislation. He says it is not always practical to include nutritional values on labelling. "The commission is pursuing two aims, a lot of information and large print. They are laudable but incompatible."
Suppliers need a long lead time
Compound ingredient listing could force manufacturers to display the constituents of any ingredient that makes up more than 2% of the total product down from the current 25%. He is concerned that suppliers may be forced to react before regulations come in. "We need a long lead time these policy makers spend years making the rules and expect us to introduce them in six months. They have never worked in a food factory and don't understand the impact it has."
Like many manufacturers, Walkers' Glenn says he already tells consumers the ingredients of every crisp and snack packet.
"The government and the growing influence of European legislation on the food manufacturing business have key roles to play. I do not believe it is their job to dictate how we run our business."
However, the government seems to be moving up a gear in its bid to improve the nation's health and its recently launched Food and Health Action Plan highlights the following as key issues where action is needed: increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in consumers' diets, encouraging reductions of salt, fat and sugar, and tackling obesity, not only through diet but also by encouraging physical activity.
Even IGD believes more could be done to stimulate a shift towards a healthier lifestyle and has called on the industry to capitalise on the interest in food and its relationship with health. "Many consumers are actively seeking healthier alternatives and it makes good commercial sense," said chief executive Joanne Denney-Finch.
But as retailers always claim, it is about consumer choice, and most consumers will always eat and drink what they want.