Big food brands must take watchdog’s lead

If your organisation is represented by the letters “FSA”, you may be feeling anxious.

The Foods Standards Agency is apparently under threat of abolition, just weeks after the Government decided the Financial Services Authority should be disbanded. If I was the Fire and Security Association, I’d watch out.

On a serious note, though, if the food agency is axed, it will come as something of a surprise. The body was set up in 2000 to work with brands to ensure the British public could always feel confident in what they ate.

Over the past ten years, this topic has become more of a concern for consumers, rather than less – obesity is rife and research from Datamonitor suggests that by 2014, 38.6% or 2.5 million British kids will be overweight.

But Health Secretary Andrew Lansley says he is not interested in nannying the public. He wants brands to step forward and fund future healthy eating campaigning in what has been called a “new responsibility deal” with business.

Yet can brands truly be responsible without the FSA? You only have to look at product packaging to see the problem. While the FSA fought hard for a colour-coded “traffic light system” to indicate comparable levels of sugar, salt and fat in products, brands like Kraft and Nestl&é were never keen on this. Indeed, the food industry has been accused of spending as much as £830m to persuade MEPs to back a rival labelling system last month.

Without the FSA, both consumers and brands will be worse off. Consumers need to be sure companies will choose the best options for their health rather than the cheapest ingredients solely to maximise their profits. The presence of the FSA means that consumers never have to ask whether this is so and brands can operate knowing they are trusted to be safe; their marketing can therefore be more creative.

“Businesses that collectively make up Big Food will be under the spotlight over the next few months to see how they handle any new responsibility”

So those businesses that collectively make up Big Food will be under the spotlight over the next few months to see how they handle any new responsibility. One man who will no doubt be at the centre of that is Unilever’s new chief marketing officer Keith Weed, who tells us on page 14 how he hopes to innovate over the next year.

Weed’s vision for Unilever is exciting and radical. I hope he gets time to implement this strategy and doesn’t have to devote all his resources to marketing that simply focuses on consumer reassurance. The FSA may have sometimes frustrated brands, but as the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for.

Ruth Mortimer, associate editor

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