Last week saw the publication of the Public Health Commission's report into improving the health of the nation. Will it provide the backbone for the Tories' health policy, asks Nick Hughes

Health-of-the-nation reports are seldom greeted with enthusiasm by a food industry accustomed to being cast as the villain of the obesity piece.

But the Public Health Commission's 'We're All In This Together' report on improving the long-term health of the UK has generally been greeted positively.

"There's a lot of good stuff in there," says Melanie Leech, director general of the Food and Drink Federation. "The need for genuine partnership working and understanding how difficult that is - that's clearly been picked up as a theme of the report and that's really good."

The question is: to what degree will it form the basis of the Tories' food and health policy when they come to power - which most believe they will next year?

The commission's remit
The Public Health Commission was established last October by the Shadow Health Minister, Andrew Lansley, to assess the Responsibility Deal between government and business set out by David Cameron and translate it into a cohesive set of proposals to improve the nation's health.

Despite being set up by Lansley, the commission is apolitical, stresses chairman of Unilever UK & Ireland, Dave Lewis, who chairs the commission. Its objective was to bring together stakeholders as diverse as Asda, the British Heart Foundation and the Fitness Industry Association "to try and make a meaningful contribution to the debate on public health," he says. "The (Conservatives') view is that if government and private sector work together, it is possible to achieve more than would be possible through intervention."

Unified health message
Nevertheless, the commission's report suggests some important strategic changes to current government health policy and presents a tantalising clue as to what a Tory government health policy might look like.

The proposals cover everything from education in schools and workplaces to food labelling and advertising and promotion of physical exercise. Of particular relevance to the food industry are recommendations to rethink nutrient profiling, adopt a calorie-driven approach and extend advertising restrictions to include new media.

"The ideas in this report reach beyond the usual short-lived public health initiatives we have seen in recent years," says Lansley. "Government action alone is limited. This logic has eluded the government. They believe in a legislative prescription for everything."

As far as a possible Tory government health policy goes, Lansley is reluctant to commit to supporting all 48 recommendations until the rest of the party has had time to digest the report. He is, however, prepared to express firm support for three of the proposals.

The first is a unified health message centred on three themes: a healthy diet, energy and responsible drinking, channelled through a single vehicle - "an improved Change4Life", as Lansley puts it.

Lansley backs the commission's call for calorie in and out information to be introduced to food and drink labels both in and out of the home. He would also like to see GDAs displayed for key nutrients.

The commission also advocates the development of a new nutrient profiling system that guides not only advertising restrictions, but nutrition and health claims, reformulation targets and other potential evaluations, including front-of- pack and out-of-home nutrition information.

It could spell the end for the Food Standards Agency's controversial Nutrient Profiling Model, the 100g base of which prohibits healthy foods such as raisins, honey and cheese from being advertised to children - and which The Grocer campaigned against in its Weigh It Up! campaign in 2007.

Nutrient profiling
"I think the report's authors recognise the 100g point," says Kellogg's communications director, Chris Wermann. "Developing a profile around the whole of the diet seems incredibly sensible."

Kraft's director of corporate affairs, Jonathan Horrell, hopes the report will at least spark "constructive debate" about the current Nutrient Profiling Model, which, he argues, is too restrictive for many product categories.

The industry will be less pleased, however, that Lansley is backing recommendations for stricter targets to be set for product reformulation and voluntary commitments to extend restrictions on marketing to children to new media and non-broadcast channels.

That said, most are resigned to further restrictions. "Looking at it from a voluntary perspective, if you're not doing that already you should see the writing on the wall because anyone would look at a campaign across all forms anyway," says Wermann.

Beyond these three proposals, however, Lansley is reluctant to pin his colours to the mast. His promise that "all [proposals] will be considered, none will be rejected out of hand" is accompanied by the ominous caveat: "We are unable to accept recommendations with spending commitments until their cost has been fully assessed."

Then again, perhaps that's no surprise given that one of the proposals - to offer free healthy school meals to all nursery and primary schoolchildren - would cost anywhere between £300m and £1bn, according to Richard Watts, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign.

The basis of Tory policy?
With the economic downturn leaving a black hole in the government's finances, there must inevitably be question marks over the viability of the commission's recommendations.

"I think there are things that are feasible and I think the way they are looking at this is that doing it in conjunction with the private sector makes it more feasible because you're not just dipping into public funding," says Wermann. "But it's difficult to commit to stuff until you've got the depth of the budget in front of you."

Nevertheless, the noises from Lansley suggest that should the Tories march to power, the commission's report will play an influential role. "This powerful analysis, the voluntary solutions brought forward by business and the voluntary sector and a supportive legislative framework set out by government have the potential to work together to defy the depressing trajectory of public health problems that the Labour government has resigned itself to," he says.

Strong words. The industry will have to wait until later in the year for Lansley to outline the Tories' health strategy. Only then will it discover what impact this report has had - and an idea of what the future holds under the probable next government.

The report says:
Front-of-pack nutrition information should cover calories, sugars, salt, fat and saturated fat.

It should extend to foods offered away from home in a manner consistent with on-pack nutrition information.

There should be a fresh impetus behind nutrient profiling in the context of a balanced diet.

Develop a self-regulatory code under which food businesses extend the existing commitment to restrict advertising to children.

Government should review the cost and health benefits of offering free, healthy school meals to all nursery and primary children.