Greg Smith is the Member of Parliament for Buckingham.
The enthusiasm for tackling obesity and wider public health issues that the Prime Minister has demonstrated since his own Covid-19 hospitalisation is understandable. But unless there is a pause for thought, we risk introducing nanny-state measures for no practical benefit.
Officials have wandered so far off the plot that many food companies in the United Kingdom risk being clobbered by new regulations, despite their products, in some cases, already having been developed or reformulated to meet government guidelines.
From April 2022, the rules for selling a range of food products will change. The Government is legislating to restrict the promotions of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) by location and price, as well as introduce a total ban on advertising of HFSS foods for TV and online.
But restrictions will affect many unintended products, including healthy alternatives to high-sugar snacks, contradicting the ultimate goal of the restrictions: tackling obesity. These restrictions will also put an additional strain to businesses already affected by the pandemic.
The categories within the scope of the restrictions cover broad concepts such as “confectionery” or “sweet biscuits and cereal bars”, without clear definitions or exemptions being provided. These categories have supposedly been included because they have the strongest connection to childhood obesity.
Many products that are included, including high-protein and low-sugar sports bars, are not even intended, or marketed, for children. Such protein bars may curb appetite, fuel a workout, or support muscle repair after exercise. For those trying to lose weight, eating a carefully selected protein bar between meals can help to provide for a suitable, nutritious, snack.
These products should not be hidden from adults who lead an active lifestyle and seek a healthy alternative to a high-sugar snack. The Government is essentially confusing and misleading consumers about the healthier options that are available to them. It has not published sufficient evidence to demonstrate that these measures will actually reduce childhood obesity.
Farmers and food producers will be penalised by these measures. Farmers in my constituency are particularly concerned that granola, porridge and muesli have been included in the list of breakfast cereals that will face restrictions on promotion and potentially advertising.
In a letter from the Prime Minister to Ian Wright, Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, dated 10th January 2021, it clearly states that the Government’s intention is to target “the products most closely linked to childhood obesity”.
Granola, porridge and muesli account for just seven per cent of children’s breakfasts. It therefore defies common sense to claim they directly contribute to childhood obesity in the UK. Wholegrain breakfast cereal products help increase vital intakes of fibre, vitamins, minerals, fruit and calcium from milk in the adult population.
They also cost on average just 27p per portion. At a time when one in ten people say they cannot afford even a £1 rise in food bills, low-cost nutritional breakfast cereals are an important meal.
The products within these categories will be scored using the Department of Health and Social Care’s Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM), to define what foods are healthy and what foods are not. Under the NPM, a food is either declared “healthy” or “less healthy”, so any food that just meets the threshold of being “less healthy” is subject to all the same restrictions as the least healthy foods that are produced, even if they have very different compositions and nutritional value. The thresholds stablished by the model are impossibly restrictive, with most processed foods struggling to pass the test.
The NPM makes no allowance for sugars that occur naturally within dried fruits and are frequently found in breakfast cereals, despite this criterion being applied by Public Health England in their latest sugar reduction targets. In addition, the fibre allowance is capped at a relatively low level. This seems to run contrary to government policy to increase fibre consumption.
The food industry has spent the past ten years trying to follow Public Health England recommendations to reformulate, change product size, or shift consumers to low- or no-sugar options for their foods. When the Soft Drinks Industry Levy was introduced, between 2015 and 2018, the total amount of sugar sold in soft drinks dropped by 29 per cent, with six of the top ten soft drinks companies in the UK having reformulated 50% or more of their products subject to the sugar tax.
But manufacturers who have already invested heavily in reformulation, or even developed their products in response to the Public Health England 2015 Sugar Reduction Programme, are still being penalised because products meeting PHE reformulation thresholds can still score poorly under the NPM.
Introducing a total ban on the promotion and advertising of HFSS foods will negatively impact both small and large businesses. This is an ill-considered policy that goes a lot further than simply being a ban on ‘junk food’ advertising. Food producers, start-up companies, and businesses of any size should not be punished as a result of a hasty and ill-thought-out campaign to tackle childhood obesity.
As we recover from the pandemic, it is essential our economy recovers quickly and robustly. Whilst the Government is right to be concerned about obesity in Britain, there is a stark difference between inspiring wiser choices among citizens and a nannying Government that tries to rescue people from themselves using regressive regulations.