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Government must do more to tackle the obesity crisis, says Which?

The Government's Responsibility Deal is inadequate

Chocolate bar

The government is failing to adequately tackle barriers to healthy eating, Which? has found.

On the first anniversary of the Public Health Responsibility Deal, Which? has assessed the Government’s approach to tackling barriers to healthy eating and has found it lacking. 

Despite major food companies being asked to sign up to the Responsibility Deal and promising to displaying calorie information, reduce salt in foods and remove trans fats, there has not been enough action. 

And a new Which? survey shows that although 91% of UK adults actively try to eat a healthy diet, 28% are not satisfied the government is doing enough to help them. 

Given the scale of the diet-related health problem – which costs the National Health Service more than £5billion every year – Which? believes a radical change of approach is needed.

Are food companies acting responsibly?

Looking at areas where more could be done, Which? has found that:

  • only two of the top ten restaurants and pub groups (Harvester and Wetherspoon) have agreed to provide calorie information. Other big brands, such as Ask, Beefeater, Café Rouge, Garfunkels, Pizza Express, Prezzo and Strada have failed to sign up
  • of the top five coffee shops, just Starbucks and Marks and Spencer’s The Café have said they will display calories. Costa Coffee, the largest chain with over a thousand outlets, is still failing to commit to providing this information, as are its competitors Caffe Nero and Caffe Ritazza
  • some good progress has been made on companies committing to reduce salt in their food, but many big name brands like Iceland, Findus, Princes and Birds Eye have yet to pledge
  • while most major companies have removed trans fats from their products, there are still smaller takeaways and other caterers that aren’t signed up to the pledge.

More Government action needed 

Speaking about the Responsibility Deal, Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said: ‘We have the worst obesity rates in Europe and diet-related diseases, like heart disease and stroke, are blighting the public’s health. 

‘Our audit of progress made under the Government’s Responsibility Deal has shown the current approach is overly reliant on vague voluntary promises by the food industry. This has so far failed to bring about change on anything like the scale that’s needed.

‘The Government relies too much on voluntary deals with industry rather than showing real leadership. If food companies don’t agree to help people eat more healthily, then we must see legislation to force them to do so for the sake of the health of the nation.’

What Which? is calling for

Which? is calling on the Government in the next six months to:

  • demand that all food companies use traffic light nutrition labelling: this approach works best, is preferred and enables people to see what they are buying
  • establish 2014 salt reduction targets: there has been progress made on salt, but further reductions are needed as are more sign ups – particularly from caterers
  • introduce a robust pledge for sugar and fat reductions: the calorie reduction pledge is vague and should focus on products that contribute the most fat and sugar
  • make reducing saturated fat a priority: given the rate of heart disease in the UK, incentives for saturated fat reductions and timelines for meeting these are needed
  • ban artificial trans fats: there has been a lot of voluntary action but it’s time to finish off the job and ensure trans fats are removed from all foods
  • make calorie labelling in chain restaurants mandatory: if calories aren’t displayed voluntarily in chain restaurants by September 2012, the Government must legislate
  • put pressure on companies to be responsible in their promotions: commitments are needed to ensure that products high in fat, sugar and salt are not actively and aggressively promoted to children and that price promotions are balanced
  • improve food in public institutions: standards are needed to improve food across public institutions, including hospitals.

Which? also wants to see responsibilities for nutrition and food labelling put back in the hands of the Food Standards Agency to ensure that policy is independent, open and joined up with other food issues.

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