14/05/14 – Labour’s proposals for regulation relating to children’s food

Speaker: Rt. Hon. Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health

14th May 2014 – meeting notes

All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood

‘Labour’s proposals for regulation relating to children’s food’ 

Baroness Benjamin introduced Rt. Hon Andy Burnham MP to the Group. Also in attendance was Luciana Berger MP, Shadow Minister for Public Health.

Rt. Hon Andy Burnham MP

This is a well-timed meeting, being one year before the General Election, when parties are “shopping” for policy.

‘The Mail on Sunday’ published a draft paper of discussions between the Shadow Health team; this was work in progress but largely accurate.

When in Government, Labour was bold on smoking, but less so on alcohol or food policy. The lessons learnt are that intervention must be careful, in an age of mistrust of politicians.

In public policy the thinking about children is different, and Government intervention more acceptable. There is an intellectual justification for treating children differently, in terms of health.  An example of this is the issue of smoking in cars with children present. The argument to ban smoking in cars was compelling enough to force a change of view from the Labour Health team.

Public health policy does not necessarily have content coherence; it is largely, a collection of initiatives on children, obesity and physical activity.

Child obesity has seen rises in certain socio-economic demographics. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has called for a ‘fat tax’; however, this is not saleable as a political objective.

Labour is now considering the viability of recommending maximum levels of fat, salt and sugar in children’s food. The sugar content of formulated food has steadily increased over the years. For example, the sugar level in ‘Frosties’ breakfast cereal is 38%.

The Shadow Health team’s thinking is now firming in the direction of introducing maximum levels; policies which were proposed in draft a year ago.

Physical activity should be the centre-piece of wider public health policy; the UK has the lowest rate of physical activity (amongst adults) in Northern Europe. How can this be tackled?

Labour is considering an ambition for levels of physical activity to reach 50% by 2025. This should also apply to children, with school sport being at the centre of the programme. Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt did not respond with enthusiasm to the suggestion that this be promoted as part of the Olympic legacy. Companies could be signed up to encourage physical activity amongst employees. This initiative might galvanise action with regard to children also.

Labour would seek agreement from the other parties on local authorities working on policy considerations such as prioritising cycling and a re-introduction of the school/sport partnership.

Questions and discussion

Over-consumption

The meeting agreed that the problem of over-eating is not solely due to food industry practice and that economic inequalities play a part (financial cost of exercise options such as swimming and cycling) as does irresponsible broadcast advertising to children.

The Labour Government had introduced free swimming for children under 16 and the Shadow Health team will consider further opportunities presented by new Local Authority responsibilities for Public Health and leisure infrastructure.

The regulation of broadcast media in terms of advertising to children will be re-visited and the team is happy to provide update to the APPG in the autumn of 2014.

Food Labelling

There was widespread concern about the ‘in-store environment’, maximum ingredient levels for foodstuffs and a sense that people are genuinely unaware of the negative implications of food content.

Labour is investigating the viability of introducing maximum ingredient levels on top of a statutory labelling scheme which may naturally lead into supermarket space being used to display certain products, rather than creating the impression that policy makers assume that the consumer is incapable of making informed personal purchasing choices.

The role of alcohol, family patterning and support

APPG members considered calorie labelling on alcohol products to be a key tool in combating obesity.

The Shadow Labour team favours a targeted approach to pricing rather than applying a blanket tax, recognising that certain products are particularly directed at the teenage market. It is aware that obesity is often a family pattern and will consider the introduction of maximum calorie levels on all foods – rather than products considered to have particular or sole appeal to children.

The importance of the role of Early Years practitioners to include health visitors and others in professional capacity was stressed, together with the need to reassess the fact that guidelines informing such practitioners are at present, voluntary.

It was recognised that current definitions of ‘children’s food’ pinpointed to a current failure in regulation, as instanced by the Advertising Standards Authority ruling on the recent ‘Cookie Crisp’ advertisement. The Labour team will review the role and responsibilities of the ASA – with particular reference to the effect of adva-games.

Play and physical activity

The need to reinstate the central role of play – currently not featured in any policy remit, to include planning – was emphasised. Other forms of exercise such as dance could be usefully promoted whilst waiting for the introduction of a national cycling infrastructure.

The Shadow team expressed an intention to investigate these suggestions, alongside the promotion of sport as mentioned and the need to apply a ‘whole child’ approach to policy formulation and budgeting at local level.

The view from industry

Contributors with industry expertise emphasised that business had an interest in changing to good practice models and moving with the times. Habits and choices for adult life were established in the early years and there was tangible industry interest in supporting the nutritional education of children. Clear-sighted regulation would promote this end by guaranteeing a level playing field for food manufacturers.

A narrow concentration upon sugar content, whilst acknowledging a need for industry to clarify what action it was taking, could divert attention from equally valid matters such as calorie and carbohydrate content.

Andy Burnham and Luciana Berger expressed readiness to continue the dialogue with the APPG and Baroness Benjamin extended thanks on behalf of the Group and a warm invitation to return in the autumn.