A New Year always prompts a look back as well as forward and I have been reflecting on the Food Network over the last four years. The journey has at times been fraught, but the progress we have made is really worth celebrating.
Within the Responsibility Deal (RD), manufacturers who have committed to a single colour-coded Front of Pack labelling scheme account for two-thirds of the products on the market, 70% of high street chains have calorie labelling at point-of-choice, two-thirds of the retail market have signed up to challenging salt reduction targets, more than half have committed to reductions in saturated fat and 41 companies have signed to calorie reduction, with notable cuts in the sugar content of drinks and portion size of confectionary. Some companies are working across a rage of pledges and can rightly claim credit for the steps they have taken to put putting health firmly on their business agenda.
Action within the RD to increase fruit and vegetables has been surprisingly muted. But it is clear that much is happening elsewhere in support of 5- A- Day as businesses seize the opportunities. I am interested that pledges to limit nutrients of concern have been much harder to agree, but the greater support they have attracted suggests this is where efforts to coordinate collective action can be most useful.
Another important lesson has come from our failure to agree a generic commitment on responsible promotions. I recognise these are tough economic times for businesses and that promotional activity goes to the heart of business competitiveness. But nonetheless 80% of consumers are looking for a healthier diet and a collective pledge would have sent a strong signal that food businesses in England are putting health at the heart of their business strategy. However, I do welcome the individual examples of companies using their marketing resources to support other pledges within the RD, such as the promotion of products with less saturated fat, sugar or salt. I am also pleased to see that the movement towards sweet-free checkouts is building, but the lack of a collective pledge is disappointing.
But the effort to find a deal on promotions has not been in vain. I firmly subscribe to the view that regulation should only be deployed when other approaches have failed. We have given voluntary agreements to control the promotion of unhealthy options the best possible opportunity to fly, but we now need to look to harder policy options to secure progress. The challenge for public health is to identify the very precise aspects of marketing which can be controlled in a way which leads to public health benefit.
Some of the key successes of the RD have been led by some of the country’s biggest retailers and manufacturers but everyone needs to play their part and embrace the RD’s vision to create a healthier food environment. We need to find ways of spreading these examples of good practice to more SMEs and right down to individual businesses operating in local areas. This is particularly true for the catering sector.
One of the jobs for public health is to discriminate between the different parts of industry to incentivise progress – to celebrate successes and to chastise the laggards, to set benchmarks and monitor progress. Too often parallels are drawn with smoking. But food is not tobacco. We cannot run 21st century lives or economies without a vibrant food industry. The vision must be to better align the goals of the food industry with public health. I think that takes talking, not shouting, and cooperation, not conflict.
The RD may not yet have achieved everything I or others wanted – that is not the nature of consensus agreements – but I really do believe we have made more progress than anywhere else in the world towards a healthier food environment. So let’s take a moment to reflect how far we have come before returning to the task in hand which is far from complete.