Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham calls for law change to force reformulation of popular items amid UK's rising obesity.
Food firms should face legal limits on how much fat, salt and sugar they can put in their products to save the NHS money and help tackle illness, Labour’s health spokesman has proposed.
Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, said the “shocking” amount of sugar in many foodstuffs was hidden from consumers, but was so great that ministers had to intervene. He is the first senior politician in Britain to argue for government regulation of the food industry to force through the widespread reformulation of products. The issue is highly sensitive for manufacturers since they are aware that a consumer backlash against changes to the flavour of foods could affect company profits.
Burnham said: “Consumers need more help to choose health. But there should be some maximums for sugar, salt and fat. I think I have been persuaded of the case for this.
“Voluntary efforts [by producers to reformulate] have not worked and it’s time for a different approach. There are some products on the market that are so full of salt, sugar or fat they are unacceptable and they have to be brought in line. The amount of sugar in many cereals is shocking.”
He said he was worried that large amounts of sugar and fat, in foods such as bread and breakfast cereals, were fuelling the UK’s rising obesity levels. Research in February by the consumer group Which? found that the breakfast cereal Kellogg’s Frosties was made up of 37% sugar, while Waitrose’s Honey Nut Corn Flakes were 33.6% sugar, and Special K, marketed by Kellogg’s as a healthy choice, had a 17% sugar content.
“If you have maximum amounts and reduce the sugar or salt in the formulated product then people can choose if they want to sprinkle some on top – they are conscious of what they are doing – whereas if it’s in the formulated product it’s much harder to control,” said Burnham. He stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity ahead of a Labour review of its public health stance and that compulsory reformulation was not party policy.
Burnham said he had become convinced of the need for mandatory reformulation partly by the 10-minute rule bill presented by the former Labour minister, Keith Vaz, which sought to force soft drinks manufacturers to cut the frequently llarge amounts of sugar in their products.
Ben Bradshaw, the former Labour culture secretary, recently argued for the introduction of “fat taxes” on foods that are classed as high in fat, sugar or salt, following the line of European countries such as Denmark, France and Hungary.
Burnham opposes such measures, saying they would hit the poorest hardest. “The tax route puts the onus on consumers rather than the manufacturers. You aren’t focusing your efforts on the creator of the problem, which is the manufacturer – so we have to start with them.”
But the food industry dismissed Burnham’s idea as unrealistic and hugely complicated. Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the Food and Drink Federation, which represents the industry, said: “To introduce regulation would be a very lengthy process and could negatively impact the excellent voluntary work that is underway to change recipes.” “It would also be hugely complex as any prescriptive reduction in nutrients would need to be accompanied by a thorough examination of all aspects of each product on the market including safety, as, for example, salt is a natural preservative. which represents the industry.
“Such an approach could paradoxically undermine public health by, in effect, the banning of products that actually contribute to a healthy diet. Whilst a product such as raisins can contribute to one of five-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables, it could be classed as high sugar.”
Cheese could also fall foul of legal limits due to the fat, salt and saturated fat it contained, she said.
Health charities gave Burnham’s call a cool reception. Mubeen Bhutta, policy manager at the British Heart Foundation, said the foundation supported legislation to ban the advertising of junk food on television before the 9pm watershed, to reduce children’s exposure and also to crack down on the online marketing of foods high in salt, sugar or fat, but it wanted renewed voluntary efforts to re-formulate products not legislation.
Katherine Jenner, a nutritionist, who is campaign director of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, said: “If we were to regulate it would take five to 10 years because it would be a very complicated thing to do. I support it but I think it’s not politically feasible.”
Jenner said that Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, should instead employ strong leadership to encourage producers to undertake much needed food re-formulation.
A government source said: “This is completely hypocritical of Andy Burnham. Labour had 13 years to regulate on this but chose not to. Through the responsibility deal we have for the first time seen wide-ranging action to help people eat fewer calories, which is better progress than Labour made during their whole time in office.”
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