Government must follow the evidence when it comes to food policy

Government must follow the evidence when it comes to food policy

The latest rumours emerging from Westminster will come as no surprise: food industry lobbyists are yet again sweet-talking MPs out of standing up for our health and the health of young people.

There is no doubt that the food system is in a difficult position right now, but we need MPs now more than ever to protect us against the ‘ferocious’ techniques of the food industry lobby.

George Osbourne (previous Chancellor) and Baroness Camilla Cavendish (previous Head of the No.10 Policy Unit) were featured in the recent Channel 4 documentary “Who Made Britain Fat”. In it, they revealed the intensity of the lobby when they were in Westminster working on strategies to tackle obesity back in 2016. Out of a host of recommendations, only the soft drink industry levy made it across the line.

Big food industry knows what it’s doing and how to push boundaries. Brands are already looking at ways to get around the upcoming marketing restrictions to make sure their products still find their way into shoppers’ baskets. And we know that unless stronger regulation is put in place without these loopholes, the big brands are going to succeed.

Sadly, children are the biggest target

The World Health Organisation’s latest report found that globally “formula milk marketing knows no limits. It misuses and distorts information to influence decisions and practices… unrelenting and multi-faceted marketing aims to persuade families, health professionals and wider society of the need for formula milk products, undermining child health and development.”. Similarly, researchers at the University of Glasgow found that claims on commercial baby foods ‘are extensively used and for the most part unregulated’. 

This is a one-sided fight. The last 30 years of obesity-related policies have failed because they rely solely on individuals to make the right choices. But we are not at fault - how can we make the right choices when everywhere we look is another advert for unhealthy food or junk food brands? How can we make the right choices for our children when claims on food products are deceitful and misleading?

Strong policy decisions do work.

When junk food adverts were banned by Transport for London, sales of high fat, salt and sugar products, particularly confectionery, dropped. 

Almost all of the products being thrown at us are ultra-processed and we know that the evidence points toward negative health outcomes. Governments such as those in Brazil, Israel and France have already taken a stance, introducing reduction targets or labelling for ultra-processed food. In addition to marketing restrictions, research also points to the potential for fiscal measures to tackle the inequality in our food system, rebalancing the system to support better diets for everyone. 

The UK has the same opportunity to protect public health. The government’s own research showed that price promotions don’t save people money. They found that they actually make families spend more on junk food which is why ministers shouldn’t delay or weaken the restrictions that are being introduced later this year. And the National Food Strategy White Paper is due to be released (delayed until mid-May 2022) - which has the once in a generation opportunity to transform our broken food system.

Regulation isn’t there to stop us from enjoying food. It helps even the fight against the relentless nudges and pokes telling us we need to eat more, snack more, buy more. And this isn’t a fight we can win alone.

What can you do?