Has the food industry made the progress it claims?

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) claims that it has started a quiet revolution in the industry, following the launch of the industry body’s Food and Health Manifesto last year. But a federation report that sets out its progress over the past 12 months has been met with scepticism from food and health lobby groups alike.

The FDF wants to show critics it is living up to the seven commitments in the manifesto. These cover labelling, fat, salt and sugar levels, portion sizes, vending machines, advertising to children, public education and healthy lifestyles.

FDF president Gavin Neath – also chairman of Unilever UK – says: “The findings are encouraging. This is decent progress on our commitments but there is still much to be done.”

The report, produced from a survey of 20 FDF members including Cadbury, Heinz and Kraft, focuses on three key areas of progress – the reduction of salt, sugar and fat, an increase in healthier options and more informative labelling.

It contains a variety of statistics on these key areas, such as that 36 per cent of products made by the companies surveyed will contain less salt by the end of this year, and 56 per cent of products are now offered in more than one size. The document also includes details of the FDF’s recommendations to Ofcom for the creation of a new section in the advertising code that focuses specifically on children.

International Obesity Taskforce director of policy Neville Rigby, a harsh critic of the food and advertising industry, describes the progress as “small steps”, but adds that goodwill is building up between the food industry and the health lobby. Ultimately, he says, the FDF has to take more action rather than making statements of good intent.

Rigby adds: “It doesn’t address the real challenges. The reduction of salt, sugar and fat is ongoing, but the real issue is advertising to children.”

Initiatives aimed at reducing levels of salt, in particular, but also of fat and sugar, have been running for some time. FDF deputy director general Martin Paterson says the body is “at pains” to point this out.

He defends the manifesto, saying it is the first time the food industry has acted collectively to tackle such issues. But he adds: “It is important we do not get stuck in a Soviet-style five-year plan.”

This autumn will see significant developments in the obesity debate, with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) releasing its final decision on food signposting, and Ofcom due to announce its findings on the need to tighten advertising codes relating to children. Industry observers suggest that the FDF has reported its progress on the manifesto now in order to head off criticism when these findings are revealed.

Charlie Powell, project officer at Sustain, which acts for an alliance of lobby groups on food and child issues, says that the manifesto is “woolly” and labels the report “smoke and mirrors”. He adds: “If the food industry was sincere about making changes then it would adopt the FSA’s signposting scheme and stop pernicious advertising to children.”

Powell also points to the changes in portion sizes, suggesting all that has changed is that king-size products are now dubbed “sharing size”.

The Public Health White Paper, launched last November, indicated the Government would give the industry two years to act before it drew up legislation. And with half that time up, the industry is still squabbling over progress on key issues.

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