Consider tougher regulation in obesity fight - Labour


Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham: "I think the time has come for new thinking"

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Labour has urged the government to consider introducing legal limits on sugar, salt and fat content in food.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said current voluntary agreements with the food industry were not working and the obesity problem was worsening,

He said Labour will soon begin a consultation on how to tackle obesity.

The Department of Health in England said its Responsibility Deal with food companies shows the voluntary approach can be successful.

At its core this is an argument about how best to reduce levels of fat, sugar and salt in our food - through regulation, or collaboration.

The coalition says working with industry through the Responsibility Deal has improved food content and labelling.

But Mr Burnham said the "time has come for new thinking" and asked whether a legal limit on the amount of fat, sugar and salt, especially for foods aimed at children, should be established.

'Helpful to parents'

Labour's consultation paper Children, Food and Obesity says parents are primarily responsible for ensuring their children eat healthily, but it argues that government also has a crucial role.

Start Quote

If we don't meet our targets and continue to make the progress that we have to make, then we would consider legislation”

End Quote Jeremy Hunt MP Health Secretary

Mr Burnham told the BBC: "This is a problem we can't carry on ignoring. It is storing up great problems for the NHS in the future.

"I think parents need more help to make healthier choices for their children, I include myself here.

"A lot of the time people don't realise just how high in fat, salt and sugar some of these products are, even when you're trying to make healthier choices.

"The industry needs to show more responsibility and come forward with products that are going to be helpful to parents in making the right choices," he concluded.

Recent NHS data has indicated that a third of children in England are either overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, putting them at greater risk than ever before of developing serious problems such as diabetes and cancer.

The party says measures could include a 30% cap on sugar content in cereals aimed at children - significantly lower than in several well-known brands.

Mr Burnham denied Labour were promoting a "nanny state", insisting parents must "decide for themselves" on food choices for their children.

"I'm not talking about banning anything... my argument is, shouldn't we just bring down those fat, salt sugar levels to make them more healthier than they are?" he added.

Which foods should be regulated?

Nutritionist Amanda Ursell highlighted five foods that she says could benefit from regulation:

  • Breakfast cereals: to reduce high sugar content
  • Fruit juice drinks: these are drinks which are not pure fruit juice and can have added sugar - but are confusing to spot among pure fruit juice products
  • Ready meals: regulation would stop some brands adding too much salt
  • Crisps: caps could reduce salt levels
  • Biscuits, cookies and cakes: manufacturers might be encouraged to rethink levels of fat

The consultation will also consider tighter restrictions on marketing and improving access to healthy food.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government was "making very good progress" in tackling childhood obesity, telling the BBC the Responsibility Deal has led to "significant reductions" in the salt, fat and sugar content of supermarket foods.

He added: "The reality is that supermarkets and the food manufacturers need to understand that we do reserve the right to legislate.

"This is not a problem we can just wish away. If we don't meet our targets and continue to make the progress that we have to make, then we would consider legislation.

"We have been able to deliver much faster results by going for voluntary agreements... but if we don't get that agreement, let's be absolutely clear, we will look at legislation. We are utterly determined to grip the problem," he insisted.

'Significant progress'

A spokesperson for the Department of Health in England added: "Our successes so far clearly demonstrate that the voluntary approach can work and we now have over 400 partners in the responsibility deal.

"We are working to reduce the amount of salt in food further, cut saturated fat consumption and we are exploring how to promote healthier food choices more widely. We also want more businesses making pledges so we get bigger results ."

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt: ''This is a very serious problem''

The Food and Drink Federation also said collaboration between business and government had been a success.

"Through voluntary commitments, manufacturers have made significant progress in reducing salt, saturated fat and calories in their products. Salt levels have reduced 9% since 2006 and some manufacturers have introduced calorie caps in particular for snacks and soft drinks."

However, former regional director of public health, Professor Gabriel Scally, said the voluntary "collaboration" between food companies and the government was not working.

Speaking to the BBC he said: "I don't think anyone in this country actually thinks that the food industry are the right people to decide what we should be eating."

Professor Nick Finer, who co-authored a recent report on obesity by the Royal College of Physicians, said legislative measures had already worked in other European countries.

"In French schools food and drink is controlled and all marketing of foods high in fat, sugar and salt is banned unless they are taxed and marketed with a health warning.

"Studies have shown that following these measures, the number of overweight children in France has dropped from 18.1% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2007."

Nutritionist Amanda Ursell said introducing legal limits on food could be "incredibly useful" if it meant "manufacturers are encouraged to reformulate their products" and market in "a responsible way".

She said: "Children's food up to the age of one is closely regulated - so you know they won't have too much sugar, salt or fat. But at the age of one those regulations disappear.

"It's a slow process and the food industry has done quite well over the years, but this would be an extra incentive to go one stage further."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    If they really wanted to tackle obesity they would get their facts right first. Most of the empty calories we eat come from carbohydrates i.e. sugar, bread, cereals, cakes, biscuits, pasta, beer etc - not animal fats. There is no evidence that a low fat diet is beneficial long term. Though by all means, stop manufacturers infantalising our food by adding sugar to it. We can add that ourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    It needs to be done, by whatever mechanism, as we, the public as a whole, have proved ourselves collectively unable to exercise any restraint......

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Big brother is starting to get into full swing now and we had better do something about it before its to late.

    They want to control every single aspect of your life, including what you eat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Labour should put John Prescott in charge of this issue - that would be a true reflection of their credibility in this and other matters,

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    The Labour manifesto is nearly honed to perfection but needs the last line added "And take the batteries out of the TV remote"

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Why not ban all the other junk that factories are allowed to throw in too.
    Pick up any supermarket product with meat in and read the label...... "Beef" get your magnifying glass then you can see "and other meats". Pick up a frozen product that contains "Real Mashed Potato" put it in the oven and that potato turns to wallpaper paste. Probably because it's been boiled and bulked out 20 times over.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    "children in England are either overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school."
    I think that child obesity has more to do with govt's selling off school playing fields.
    When I were a lad it was not uncommon to see kids running around scoffing a slab of bread with half an inch of dripping on it. Were we fat? No because we burnt it all off running around on the school fields that's why!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I think a huge problem is people playing video games a lot.I feel that in order to combat obesity you need to encourage people to do more exercise. For example in my area there is nothing offered to people with disabilties who are bad at sport i.e. not paralympians. Stop wasting billions on entertaining the rich and sports fans(the olympics) and actually help increase the amount of sport available

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    BBC, why the preponderance of quotes from people in favour of compulsion? Why nothing from anyone who believes that any government interference, including "voluntary" arm-twisting, in what we eat is impertinent? Your charter, that enables you to extract billions from the population, requires you to be impartial; yet again, you fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Most of us buy what we eat, so if most of the stuff available to buy has too much sugar, fat etc, we will eat too much sugar, fat etc. Food manufacturers have a vested interest in persuading us to eat more.of their products, so the result is almost inevitable.
    There is a very clear case for regulation, especially of children's food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    More Nanny State stuff. If I want a chocolate biscuit I want one high in fat/sugar. If I want a packet of crisps I want salty ones. I brought up three children who understand that these kinds of foods are treats. Children need to be taught how to eat. And please don't ASK small children what they want to eat (overheard recently). Nanny would never have asked!

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    In terms of fat, carbohydrates, sugar, gluten (and so on) why not simply require all food packaging to conform to standards of coherent labelling in both terms of weight and portion in a way that does not mislead whilst using a font size /colour that can be clearly ready by all.

    People can then make their own decisions about what food is suitable for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Could understand wanting to regulate the stealthy addition of excess sugar or salt to some supposedly healthy foods but where do you draw the line? Don't think it's possible to draw a sensible line, more trouble than it's worth. Spend some more money on an actual Olympic legacy of grass roots sports participation instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Take the party politics out of this for a minute. Regardless of who calls for this, it's a positive move - 'voluntary agreements' rarely work, and the population is getting more and more obese. We need to act, and this is an initiative I'd hope all parties could get behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    The best time to control what you eat is when you go weekly shopping. Most folk don't read the guidence labels as I suspect that they don't understand them.
    If you are fat it is easy to lose weight if you don't eat certain foods which trigger the "storage of fat". Stick at a plan for a week or two and it becomes second nature.
    Inherited eating habits are often the downfall of the fat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    It's easy to succumb to the glossy ads for calory-laden food. Even easier to fall for the latest taste in cola, burgers etc if you're poor and haven't the nous of the educated.
    Labour's idea is far better than the Tories' humiliation of the overweight poor (Is it OK to be fat if you're rich?) because it stops the temptation at source. Why should cynical junk food makers be given such licence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    It's not what you eat, It's how much you eat.

  • Comment number 68.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I agree with 29 matti76, people can't do it themselves, let's do a bit forcing. Although, it won't stop obesity, just eating too much will! What's happening with all the fast-food! Are they going to be regulated too? There are so much to do to tackle the obesity. The quality in food in shops,but in "restaurants"and at home! People have got no idea how to eat: quantity or quality!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Typical "nanny state" control freakery ..... but what else would we expect when it's coming from Labour???


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