The UK Government published its childhood obesity strategy today to widespread criticism that the proposed measures were not tough enough to tackle the problem. Liam McCloy takes a bite into what it means for businesses.
The strategy has had a protracted birth. Promised at various points earlier in the year it has eventually arrived into a very different political landscape post the EU Referendum. The May Government is acutely aware of the pressures on the UK economy following the decision to leave the EU – hence being mindful of the regulatory burdens on business and emphasizing a voluntary approach. The publication of the Sugar Drinks Levy consultation also allows the Prime Minister to consider the detailed impact on industry in October ahead of the Autumn Statement in late November / December.
By publishing the strategy relatively early on in her tenure, the Prime Minister has also given herself the flexibility to develop her narrative around this issue. She has, however, indicated a ‘back to basics’ approach focusing on ‘energy in versus energy out’ as the root driver of obesity. This suggests that broader policy agendas around build environment for example with talk of planning restrictions for unhealthy food businesses are out of scope. The strategy has also focused on the consumption of foods rather than the advertising and promotion of them. There is an interesting line which says that ‘Evidence shows that slowly changing the balance of ingredients in everyday products, or making changes to product size, is a successful way of improving diets. This is because the changes are universal and do not rely on individual behaviour change.’
So what are the main impacts of the strategy on industry’s licence to operate? Food manufacturers and retailers will have to invest further in reformulation if they are to minimise the impact of the producer levy on soft drinks and make progress on an ambitious 20% sugar reduction programme across a range of foods. Caterers will have to work through the uptake of Government Buying Standards at central and local government level. In addition, the strategy flags several policy areas the Government is keen to explore further. These include visual front of pack labelling (teaspoons for sugar); further restrictions on the purchase of food and drink in hospitals; further reform of the nutrient profiling model; and setting calorie reduction targets on a wide range of products contributing to children’s calorie intake both consumed in and outside the home.
Finally, now that the strategy is out, expect health campaigners to redouble their lobbying efforts at the forthcoming party conferences and then when Parliament returns in the Autumn. Grassroots campaigning by NGOs and others have helped nurture cross party support for policy interventions and politicians will continue to be mindful of managing public appetite and expectation for action in this area – particularly as the Prime Minister continues to assess her options for triggering a General Election over the next 18 months.
Liam McCloy, Partner, Public Affairs
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January 21, 2021