A year on from the publication of the Choosing Health White Paper, and the prognosis for a more positive working relationship between the food industry and government is finally looking up.
While the thorny issues of promotion to children and traffic light signposting remain major sticking points, the consensus at a seminar this week organised by The Grocer to mark the paper’s anniversary was that dialogue had improved and a more constructive partnership going forward appears more likely.
“We have a solid, robust relationship with the Food Standards Agency. We believe we are building a similar one with the Department of Health,” Gavin Neath, chairman of Unilever UK and president of the Food and Drink Federation told the 130 grocery retailers, manufacturers, advertisers, government agencies and DH officials in the audience.
Asked how she rated dialogue with industry, public health minister Caroline Flint said progress had been made, although she conceded there were areas in which both sides could work harder. To help strengthen this dialogue Flint and Food Standards Agency chair Dame Deirdre Hutton are meeting individual companies to gain a greater understanding of their issues and a feel about what is happening in practice, Flint revealed. “There are also a number of forums involving industry and I hope they realise that if they have issues they can talk to us about them,” she said.
FSA deputy chair Julia Unwin echoed these sentiments, saying further progress would only come from working collectively. She was adamant that any turf war between the DH and FSA that had existed a year ago was now in the past. “There is far too much to do to fight over it. We have divided the lead we take on these things,” she said.
Flint conceded that the commitments set out in the White Paper were challenging for the food and drink industry but said she had been encouraged by the overall response from the industry, particularly in areas such as salt reduction.
While remaining steadfast when it came to the need for even more progress and refusing to budge on the 2007 deadline for a review of the balance of food promotion to children, after which legislation could be introduced if the balance in children’s food preferences did not change, Flint’s tone was more consensual than that of her predecessor Melanie Johnson.
It appears she is listening to industry and keen to harness its expertise to tackle the pressing issue of obesity, which accounts for 6% of all deaths in England and is linked to 36% of high blood pressure cases and 47% of type 2 diabetes.
This desire for partnership is no more obvious than in the development of a national obesity campaign. This has been a contentious issue to date, with the industry and advertising community’s vision, put to government some 18 months ago, appearing to fall on deaf ears. Now, however, the DH has changed its tune.
“Industry has a wealth of experience in marketing and understanding consumers and will be a key partner in advising and supporting the government’s campaign,” Flint said.
“Food manufacturers and retailers have very sophisticated information about their target audience and what motivates them to shop in a certain store and buy particular products. We need to learn from this approach, to understand what motivates people to change so we can target specific groups with messages that mean something to them,” she added.
The food industry proposes a joint government/industry-funded multimedia campaign, with one overarching slogan such as the Think campaign for road safety. A series of targeted communications could then be linked under this slogan. Such a campaign would focus on the need for balance in what consumers eat and how they lead their lives.
“We think this is a truly big idea and it represents a huge commitment on behalf of the industry,” said Neath. “It is an idea we have been discussing in Whitehall for 18 months. It is now being seriously considered by the DH and we hope that we can make substantial progress in the first half of 2006.”
Nevertheless, while it is clear both sides want to work together in a spirit of partnership, it is not all cosy. For one, the FSA’s preferred system for front of pack signposting - multiple traffic lights - does not seem to have any legs, if comments at the seminar are anything to go by.
“In my view only one [of the systems being put out to consultation] has a chance of gaining traction and getting adopted and that is the one based on Guideline Daily Amounts,” stated Neath.
He stressed the FSA would be wise to go with the grain of work already done in this area if it wanted to establish a voluntary system for front of pack.
‘The food industry has worked its socks off over the past year to develop a system of GDAs for back of packs. The approach is close to the solution adopted by Tesco so it would only take a few big manufacturers to align themselves with Tesco and we would have a critical mass of foodstuffs labelled in the same way,” Neath explained.
“The alternative traffic light system takes the dumbed down route and delivers virtually no useful information to help people balance their diet.”
And it is not only suppliers who are unlikely to adopt this system. Sainsbury brand director Judith Batchelar said the retailer wholly supported the GDA approach and that its customers understood its Wheel of Health signposting. “There would have to be very compelling arguments as to why we should change this,” said Batchelar.
More worrying for the FSA, the nutrient profiling model that will underpin the decision on what foods can and cannot be advertised to children was attacked for being scientifically flawed and possibly unsafe. “Is Ofcom totally confident that the FSA’s model is right and the nutritionists in the industry are wrong?” asked Jeremy Preston from the Food Advertising Unit.
For the FSA this is a critical issue and Unwin was quick to invite industry to formally approach the agency if there were a real concern that the science was flawed.
However, even in contentious areas such as these there appears to be some attempts to smooth the path between government and industry.
According to Unwin, the FSA will consider carefully the practical aspects of its signposting model and she admitted that different systems could co-exist. Even Neath said: “There is a basis of an agreement if both the industry and the FSA have the will to find it.”
It has taken a year of spin, debate and sometimes worrying naivety on behalf of government but now the scene is set for a more pragmatic way forward. As Neath concluded: “If we are successful and work effectively together, we can make a fundamental change to the health of the nation without endangering the health and prosperity of what remains of Britain’s largest industrial sector - the food industry.”
>>companies’ leadership is crucial to achieve change
John Dyson (l), British Hospitality Association
It may appear that the hospitality sector has got off lightly in the health debate but Dyson stressed that it was working closely with the Food Standards Agency in areas such as saturated fat and calories. “The average consumer goes into a fast food outlet once every seven weeks and takes the debit/credit view of consumption, treating it as a luxury,” he said. The public sector could not ignore health as it was now a competitive issue in terms of securing contracts. But “don’t hold your breath for nutrient labelling in hospitality”, Dyson added.
David Young (second left), Eversheds
Young was worried that government saw the introduction of regulation as an easy solution to the health crisis. “This is already one of the most highly regulated industries. If there is a geniune attempt to work in partnership then you don’t want regulation,” he said. He noted that any legislation on nutritional labelling would require many people to enforce it and the largest companies would become scapegoats, even for a small, technical area of non-compliance. “The message that would send to consumers is that business is not compliant and does not care. It will be a major cost to business just to stand still.”
Andrew Opie (second right), BRC
It is not all doom and gloom, as Opie showed when he told delegates that UK retailers were seen as innovators across Europe when it came to health. “It is clear in our discussions with European colleagues that the UK is seen as a leader in health. We are being used as best practice,” he said. However, he added that health was now a competitive issue for retailers and that they were best placed to tailor schemes that met the needs of their customers.
Jeremy Preston (right), Food Advertising Unit
Preston noted the volume of advertising to children had fallen by 30% in the last six years yet obesity levels were not down. He took issue with the nutrient profiling model that would help Ofcom decide what foods should and should not be advertised to children. The model, now out for final consultation, is based on 100g when, in terms of products such as Bran Flakes, people ate 35g, and with milk. “Bran Flakes will be unhealthy under the model. We need it as consumed, not 100g,” he said.
The slippage of the timetable for the new food broadcast codes, as well as self-regulatory non-broadcast codes, together with the 2007 deadline for potential legislation, was another huge issue for advertisers. It took 18 months for a strategic shift and nine just for a change of execution, Preston said. As far as a national obesity campaign was concerned, “an ad in itself just won’t work. Awareness does not drive behavioural change. Leadership is needed and we need to be brave. This has to be sustained for at least 10 years.”
The view of the consumer
>>Denney-Finch points to motivation as the fundamental stumbling block
Consumers are aware of the need to think about health but there is a huge motivational barrier to tackling the issue.
IGD chief executive Joanne Denney-Finch pulled together many years’ worth of consumer research to show the true extent of the challenge facing government and industry when it comes to health.
Consumers fall into four main groups on this issue. One puts its faith in scientists to find solutions, another believes natural foods and cooking from scratch is the way to health.
There are those who prefer exercise, and finally a big group that can’t motivate itself to make any changes at all.
However, most consumers are deluding themselves. Some 61% say their diet is always healthy and only 11% say they are not eating healthily.
And 27% of people believe they eat five portions of fruit and veg a day. Yet in reality the average consumption for women was 2.9 portions and for men 2.7, said Denney-Finch.
“There’s also a tendency for people to believe that if they eat those five portions, they don’t need to worry about how much fat, salt or sugar they eat.
“People see a trade-off, where doing one good thing will cancel out a bad thing.”
Perception of weight is also changing, depending on the size of those around you and whether your clothes still fit. “As the nation’s weight increases, so our perception of acceptable weight also increases,” said Denney-Finch. A longer life is the main catalyst for a healthy diet, but this appeals to over 55s rather than teenagers.
Motivation is the biggest problem. “For some people food never becomes anything other than fuel. Jamie Oliver did a lot for schools, now someone needs to do something similar in order to bring back kitchen classrooms for teenagers.”
Otherwise they would continue to think in the manner of one 17-year-old interviewed by IGD who said: “I will eat junk food until I am 30 and then I’ll start acting like a grown-up.”
By then it could be too late.