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Food industry faces step-change in regulation

By: David Racadio

The voice of the food manufacturers is no longer as salient as that of health campaigners. MPs put more weight on the views of the health lobby than those of the food industry when making decisions about sugar taxes and other measures designed to address the rising tide of obesity.

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In a straight fight between the food industry and the health lobby, the industry loses and faces more and more regulation from legislators. The introduction of a ‘sugar tax’ on sugary drinks in the March Budget is only the beginning. The majority of MPs believe that the sugar levy will increase in amount and in range of products covered.

Health Lobby-05

Campaigners want tighter restrictions on the food industry and, in the current environment, they will get them. MPs, worried that the nation is getting fat ‘on their watch’, are beginning to accept that food is now produced, marketed and promoted in an obesegenic environment which encourages people to eat unhealthily.

Buoyed by their success in convincing ministers to take the plunge on the sugar tax, health campaigners are seeking substantial restrictions on advertising, an end to buy-one-get-one-free promotions, ferocious reformulation commitments and clearer labelling. If nothing changes, the industry faces a step-change in regulation. The examples of the alcohol and tobacco industries demonstrate that zealous health campaigners don’t stop. Pressure to regulate just continues to build.

To change the dynamics, the food industry needs to impact on the attitudes of consumers, the voice that carries more weight with legislators than the health lobby. It must train some of its gargantuan marketing skills toward a public policy campaign on obesity, because, currently, the only side of the argument that is registering with the public is that of the health lobby and its megaphone, Jamie Oliver.

It won’t be easy and it will hurt. To put its case credibly, the food industry will have to concede some ground and accept it now has a greater responsibility to protect consumers from obesity. It will have to demonstrate its commitment to protect consumers from expanding waistlines with bold and eye-catching action – perhaps on advertising and/or reformulation. Only by doing this, can it begin to rebuild trust with consumers and rebalance the obesity debate.

It is right for the industry’s public campaign to question the effectiveness of proposed taxes/regulations in reducing obesity, to demonstrate impacts on product taste and to highlight the extreme views of some health campaigners. But, rather than just criticise, it is more important that the industry puts forward alternatives in the form of concrete and practical plans to drive down obesity.

One thing that most consumers and legislators agree on is that ‘something must be done’. It’s time for the food industry to start challenging the health lobby with its own approach to reducing obesity which uses its marketing prowess to carry people with them. Without winning over consumers, the weight of the food industry’s voice is no longer strong enough with legislators to resist the health lobby’s call for much more regulation.

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