Opinion: Food firms face tough obesity challenge

This can't be one of the most comfortable times to work in the marketing or PR department of a fast food, soft drink or confectionery manufacturer.

As the 'obesity time bomb' ticks ever louder, many professionals in the food industry must feel as if they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

In fact, with obesity and diet-related diseases overtaking smoking as the lead killer in the US and possibly the UK, some food producers must feel that they too have overtaken the tobacco manufacturers as the latest pariahs on the public health agenda.

In the US, McDonald's has already found itself the subject of lawsuits by consumers who accuse the chain of endangering their health by serving fatty foods. While here in the UK, health and consumer groups are calling for a Swedish-style outright ban on the promotion of junk food to children, and threatening to name and shame products if no action is taken by their producers to tackle obesity.

Tessa Jowell has ruled out an outright ban on advertising to kids, but as a result of the mounting pressure, companies such as Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Terry's Chocolate Orange and Toblerone have already made a commitment that they will not pay for unhealthy food ads aimed at children. Many others are keen to be seen taking action over the nutritional values of foods. McDonald's is reducing salt on its fries, phasing out supersize menus and placing salads centre stage as a core offering.

No doubt the food groups feel that they really have no option but to take action. But the uncomfortable truth is that they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Moves such as that by McDonald's are already being derided as cynical CSR ploys, which pay lip service to health concerns in order to maintain market position, while some consumer groups see any kind of action as an admission of responsibility.

However, with obesity now such an emotive issue, food groups cannot afford not to be seen to take action, thereby setting themselves up as easy targets in the run-up to an election.

Jowell has already made it clear that the Government expects the food industry to take voluntary action. Never mind the fact that even the Food Standards Agency's own research shows that 90 per cent of respondents believe that parents were responsible for improving children's diets, and only three per cent laid the responsibility for obesity at the door of the food industry.

What is really needed is a wholesale revision of a nation's appetites.

But injecting common sense and will-power into the public is a complex business, and in the interim, food manufacturers make a mighty convenient scapegoat.

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