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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Food lobby weighs in on obesity debate
By Clare Matheson
BBC News Online business reporter

Obese people in America
Concern is mounting that the UK is heading for an obesity epidemic
The UK food industry is throwing its weight behind a huge campaign to head off growing pressure for regulations to tackle the mounting obesity crisis.

Reports suggest companies and industry groups were stepping up their campaign ahead of the release of a key government report on the issue.

The Commons health select committee report rapped the food industry and advertisers for failing to tackle the problem, and called for urgent action on the issue.

The report recommended that if the industry did not act within three years, the government should step in.

And it will severely criticised ministers for "a total lack of joined-up solutions" to the crisis, adding many departments need to tackle the issue not just health.

Labelling plans

The MPs also called for a "traffic light" system as a clear indicator of what foods are deemed good or bad for health.

But behind the scenes there has been a flurry of activity on behalf of an industry keen to retain its independence.

Labour MP Debra Shipley, who has been pushing for tighter controls on marketing to children, said: "The food and drink and advertising industry are using every means they can to say that they are not part of the problem.

"Just about every health organisation, the NUT, WI, and more - we're also lobbying."

Negative messages about healthy eating just don't work - much better to promote a positive approach to food and health
Martin Peterson, FDF
She added ominously: "If we lose the vested interests have won against the health service and parents."

But, food manufacturers' lobby group the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is working hard to ensure it remains free of new rules and regulations.

'Working together'

Instead the group - whose members include such big names as Unilever and Cadbury Schweppes - is "looking to create a generation of informed consumers", said spokeswoman Kate Snowdon.

While remaining tight-lipped about the number of behind the scenes meetings, letters and briefings she did say the FDF had been working hard "as you would expect" with consultations.

According to documents acquired by the Guardian the Federation had 2,000 contacts with ministers, lords, MPs and special advisers last year - or around five meetings, letters or phone calls a day.

Ms Snowdon went on: "Certainly we have suggested to the government that we should work together with the government to raise more awareness among consumers about a healthy diet."

Instead the group is placing itself firmly in the "common-sense" camp saying the public doesn't want "nannying" - arguing that consumers already know that some foods will make you fat.

While numerous newspaper headlines protest at increased salt, sugar and fat in our diet, the federation blames changing lifestyles for the problem.

Health call

More people are now eating out and people have fewer cooking skills despite the plethora of cookery programmes on TV, it claims.

Cheese selection
'Traffic light' labels may see consumers ditch certain foods
The FDF has also played the health education card.

Deputy director Martin Paterson said: "The idea that a particular food is bad for you is out of date and simplistic.

"A balanced diet can include snacks and treats - moderation is the key.

"Negative messages about healthy eating just don't work - much better to promote a positive approach to food and health."

And rather than using labels to flag up "unhealthy" foods the group is calling for a series of adverts much in line with the "Think!" road safety campaign.

The ads would stress the need for exercise and advise shoppers to check out lower salt, fat and sugar food choices.

Mr Paterson also claims the traffic light labels would prove to be unworkable.

He told the Independent: "Some shops have already tried this and it doesn't work.

"Raspberries had to be labelled with an unhealthy red dot because of their sugar, and how would you label cheese - or an avocado which is high in fat - under the system."

'Demonizing food'

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has also taken the same health stance as the FDF.

Kevin Hawkins, BRC director, said: "Policy should be based on sound science."

Raspberries risk being labelled unhealthy, the FDF claims
He added that "demonizing" certain foods was actually against the advice of the UK's best nutritionists who say there are no good or bad foods, only good and bad diets.

The traffic light approach actually leads to the "artificial segregation" of foods - attacking diet staples such as meat and dairy products, he said.

And such an approach could lead to "unforeseen consequences" such as lower calcium or iron intake, he argued - claiming Sweden has suffered that fate since adopting the label system a number of years ago.

But, whether the big guns will have succeeded in their battle remains to be seen - but whatever the report's findings are, the industry will now be focusing on a white paper on public health.

That may enable them to bypass the select committee report's findings, as big food names have held out the paper as the correct place for any legislation or regulation.

But there is still a lot of hard work ahead as there are still some weeks to go before the paper is due to be published.

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