The Department of Health (DoH) has launched three publications in March 2005 outlining a delivery plan for its Public Health White Paper (published November 2004 – click here to see Law-Now on this topic) commitments.
The three white papers contain a lot of jargon. There is a great emphasis on "joining up action", "building partnership and inviting engagement", "planning and performance assessment" and "resourcing".
The proposals are mainly reliant on voluntary action and a "partnership" approach between government and industry. The voluntary route allows for a certain amount of flexibility and speed but also opens the way for inconsistency of implementation and potentially a greater confusion for the public resulting from this.
It is in particular in relation to the food industry and in "tackling obesity" that the objectives and their implementation are most problematic.
By mid 2005 it is stated that the government aims to have introduced a system that could be used as a standard basis for sign posting food. The 5 a day logo, a very simple positive labelling logo has been compared to the introduction of a system of categorising all foods on the basis of the provision of a healthy diet. Whilst it may be established that the provision of "5 a day" fruit and/or vegetables can only be a positive thing, the sign posting criteria assesses each food as part of a healthy diet (of which each individual has separate different requirements). It is assessed that once the nutritional criteria of each food is established the government goal is, by early 2006, to provide a clear straightforward coding system "that busy people can understand at a glance, to find out which foods can make a positive contribution to a healthy diet, and which are recommended to be eaten only in moderation or sparingly". Further, for this to be "in common use" at that time. Additionally, the nutritional criteria to be used should identify which foods can be promoted to children.
This is despite the fact the recent European Food Information Council (EUFIC) study into food labelling and consumers' understanding of them found that the nutritional system "is not about qualifying into good or bad products, it is about helping to integrate any product into a good diet" (For more information please click here). Also, as long as consumers lacked a basic understanding of nutritional terms and requirements, any label information will be lost on them. There was therefore an immediate need for better nutrition in education and improve nutrition knowledge.
It is difficult to see how there could be a clear, straightforward coding system in common use where requirements as to nutrition labelling in a basic form differ across Europe. Different food producers from different member states and even between different industries will adopt different labelling practices. Equally, there is likely to be a inconsistency between products (ie those unpackaged and those from caterers, those from different countries and different uptake levels within the UK itself). Rather than creating clarity it is likely the government will provide further cost on industry without any corresponding impact on public health.
It is likely that the nutritional criteria which will be established by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) will be key to how food products are promoted in the future. It is therefore vital that the basis upon which the FSA decide this criteria for each food be very carefully considered and not necessarily in a "one size fits all" context.
New Food and Drink Advertising Promotion Forum
The new Food and Drink Advertising promotion forum has been instigated to "review supplement and strengthen and bring together existing provisions". It is, again, uncertain on what basis any strengthening of existing voluntary codes will be undertaken.
There is no indication within the delivery papers of any of the concerns and drawbacks raised during the period of consultation.
Whilst certain "healthy" foods may be positively marketed as such, the entire edifice of nutritional requirements for individuals cannot be collated down to an easy to read coding system "that busy people can understand at a glance". Negative or restrictive labelling of certain foods by necessity feeds into a "warning labelling" mentality which is out of place in the food market
Please click here (this will open a PDF in a new window) for a summary of the important detail of these papers, from the perspective of the food and leisure industry.
This article also appeared in our Food industry law bulletin May 2005. To view this publication, please click here to open a new window.