We must do more to escape junk food cycle - Zoe Betts

Food suppliers and others in the food supply chain can expect to face further mandatory obligations aimed at encouraging consumers to make healthier food choices.

Zoe Betts, Legal Director, Pinsent Masons

A UK government commissioned report - the second part of a national food strategy - sets out proposals aimed at “escaping the junk food cycle”, which it states is crucial for improving the health of the population and for the UK to meet some of the challenges of climate change.

While directly related to the market in England, the independent review was asked to consider the relationship with the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - where policy responsibility for food and health is largely devolved.

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The report points to the UK’s “predilection for calorie dense foods”. It says a cycle of activity is linked to food companies which “invest more time and money creating these foods, which makes us eat more of them and expands the market, which leads to more investment, which makes us eat more”.

Focusing on foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), the report suggests that whilst some producers do want to make their food healthier, this cannot be done on a commercially viable basis without legislative intervention ensuring a level playing field.

Many commentators believe that improving the health outcomes of those with a poor diet requires legislative intervention. The report suggests that a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses, would incentivise manufacturers to reduce the levels of sugar and salt in their products, by reformulating their recipes or reducing their portion sizes.

The report notes that retailers can influence customer food choices, through product positioning and promotions, for example. To promote better choices by consumers, the report recommends that there should be a statutory duty for all food companies with more than 250 employees - including retailers, restaurant and quick service companies, contract caterers, wholesalers, manufacturers and online ordering platforms - to publish an annual report based on metrics which include the sales of HFSS food, protein by type, vegetables, fruit, major nutrients and total food and drink sales.

Regulation of product promotion and placement is already on its way in England - the Food (Promotion and Placement) (England) Regulations 2021 will impose restrictions on medium and large retailers and allow for the service of improvement notices, criminal penalties and fixed monetary penalties on breach.

A wide range of prepacked food and drink is in scope including soft drinks; cakes; confectionery; ice cream; pastries; puddings; sweet biscuits; breakfast cereals; yoghurts; milk and juice-based drinks with added sugar; ready meals; crisps and savoury snacks; and chips and similar potato products.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the dangers of obesity into sharp focus. With pressure on the NHS mounting, there is certainly political will to make changes. Whether that translates to the regulation suggested remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that the UK government will not shy away from imposing further obligations on the food supply chain to force change to improve health outcomes. Those in the food supply chain cannot be left behind.

Zoe Betts, Legal Director, Pinsent Masons

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