John Stevenson is the Conservative MP for Carlisle.
As a country, we are too fat. This is an inescapable fact. High obesity levels lead to many other problems and health complications, which cause misery to those affected. And the Government – rightly – wants to do something about this.
To my mind, this can only happen by working with the food and drink industry itself. The food and drink industry in our country is incredibly advanced – employing nearly half a million people and with a turnover of £105 billion.
It is the largest manufacturing industry in the country, accounting for almost 20 per cent of the sector’s turnover. Food and drink has a manufacturing footprint all over the country, and with Nestle, McVitie’s and other food plants in my own constituency, I know just how important it is.
As the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Food and Drink, I also know that the research and development departments in the UK’s food and drink industry are world leading. Reformulation and portion control efforts have led to some impressive innovations and have had a real effect on consumption.
However, it seems in looking for strategies to tackle the obesity crisis, the Government is going the way of banning, restricting, and prohibiting – and I was more than a little disappointed to the see its recent consultation and response on promotions of products “high in fat, sugar and salt.”
These proposals include a total ban on online advertising, which comes on the heels of other measures that will restrict or impose costs on industry, including restrictions on promotions and even where these foods (which would include the likes of sausage rolls and peanut butter) can be located in a shop.
These proposals are considered by the Government as a cornerstone of its obesity strategy announced earlier this year. But according to its own impact assessment would only reduce calorie intake by just 2.8 calories a day.
This will have a small impact on obesity, but a real impact on product innovation, the ability of new companies to compete in the market, the price of the weekly shop and – yes – informed consumer choice.
But worse of all, this all comes at probably the most terrible time possible for the industry – the end of the UK/EU transition period and in the middle of a global pandemic. At a time when some government Departments are rightly looking at measures to give business a much-needed boost, other parts of government are introducing restrictions. This doesn’t appear to be joined-up thinking.
It is evident that these proposals will stifle investment. Businesses in the UK will be deterred from developing and innovating new, healthier product ranges, while advertising and promotional restrictions will act as a barrier for businesses abroad from entering the UK market. With a food and drink industry keen to play its part to tackle obesity, shouldn’t the Government be working in collaboration with the UK’s largest manufacturing sector rather than penalising it?
It is marketing that helps shift consumer behaviour towards healthier choices over time and long-lasting habits to remove calories from diets. Without this, food and drink manufacturers have no tools to encourage consumers to switch to their products which they have been working hard to make healthier.
Indeed, introducing these measures would lead to the position where products that have been reformulated so that calories and sugar levels have been reduced cannot be advertised to consumers, or placed in certain positions in a supermarket. Scrapping years of hard work by industry to make healthier products surely cannot be the Government’s intention.
The food and drink industry and its advertisers already use sophisticated online tools to target advertisements to adult audiences, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority. Existing rules and sanctions can be used and tightened, and this would raise UK standards further (which are already some of the strictest in the world). It is disappointing that the Government has disregarded this as a route forward.
As we all celebrated Christmas, albeit in a much more limited way than normal, it occurred to me just how amazing our food and drink industry is. Amid a global pandemic, national restrictions, and a tense and tight Brexit finish, our shop shelves remained stacked, the food we needed was produced, and the goods we rely on for our celebrations were on the tables – just as normal.
I know that this does not happen by accident. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for this to occur. I do think that the food and drink industry, and the workers who make up the industry, have been some of the unsung heroes of the past year.
It would be a shame, therefore, at these most difficult of times for the Government to take this blunt approach to the UK’s largest manufacturing industry and for consumers to be stripped of choice and information. Let’s ensure the Government and the industry continue to work together to fight the common enemy – obesity.