A wake up call for food businesses to evolve with the changing times

Susan JebbFood network chair Dr Susan Jebb challenges businesses to consider the impact the healthier eating agenda is having and to make a new year’s resolution to commit to the Responsibility Deal.

It was interesting to see the new Change4life campaign, ‘Be Food Smart’, launched early in the new year, with its harder-edged message about the ‘hidden nasties’ in our food. Not an easy message for the food industry to swallow, let alone support as partners of C4L. But the breadth of engagement from industry in the campaign shows just how far many companies have moved with us to encourage healthier eating habits.

I want to thank those companies who have worked on this but also to note that there are still many big names missing – both from the C4L portfolio and as Responsibility Deal partners.

In a recent address to the food industry, Public Health Minister Anna Soubry, made it clear that she believes food and drinks companies have a moral responsibility to act. The Minister and I are both committed to the partnership working we have developed within the Responsibility Deal, but we are also clear that we need to maintain the momentum and draw far more companies into the Deal if this is to succeed in delivering the best outcomes for public health.

No doubt the recent lessons learnt from HMV and other big high street names, are a wake up call to many in the business about the need to move swiftly with the changing times. Healthier eating is no longer the pursuit of a fadish-minority. It’s becoming much more part of the everyday shop as recent press stories on Lidl’s new trial of healthier tills clearly shows.

Lots of people will be starting the New Year with resolutions to improve their diet, become more active or to lose weight and it’s a good time for businesses to also face the facts. Obesity is a prime example. With around two-thirds of adults overweight or obese, we have moved beyond thinking of obesity as a problem just for individuals. Instead, we now recognise the huge burden obesity also places on business and society, particularly in disadvantaged communities. As I’ve said here before, obesity costs – individuals, communities, businesses, the NHS and the wider economy – and all of us as taxpayers.

Some companies are already on the front foot, but in 2013 I want to see more companies waking up to their responsibilities and acknowledging the opportunities created by the nation’s changing food preferences. Then, rather than fighting and challenging the health lobby, move to embrace, change and innovate – recognising that being ahead of the curve makes sound business sense.

I hope that the rapid progress made with industry in the past six months on Front of Pack nutrition labeling is indicative of the progress we can make in other areas too. With momentum building on the Responsibility Deal calorie reduction work (we recently announced a further eight companies signing up to the pledge – making 31 in total), a new salt reduction strategy on the table and work progressing this year on reducing saturated fat – now is the time for any businesses lagging behind to catch up on pledges already signed off by their competitors and embrace the new pledges.

The C4L Food Smart campaign, with its focus on ‘hidden nasties’, is very much consumer facing, but it should also be a rallying cry to industry. In such a competitive market businesses can’t afford to be on the wrong side of the fence to the sorts of C4L and health messages omnipresent in the media – to cut back on fat, watch your salt, swap to lower sugar options and eat 5-A-day.

Sedentary behaviour we all know is bad for our health and there is no better time for businesses to shake off their old habits and get fit for the future. Now, more than ever, businesses need to embrace the healthy eating agenda and start swimming with the tide – for the sake of their business and their customers.

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