Analysis: Food lobby forced onto the defensive

The Food and Drink Federation has called in comms support as it bids to be seen as an advocate of healthy eating, rather than an enemy. David Quainton reports

The UK is on a health trip – sales of soft drinks are plummeting, McDonald's is closing restaurants and sales of fruit and vegetables are on the rise. The reasons for this are manifold. Certainly Jamie Oliver and Education Secretary Ruth Kelly (via her war on school vending machines) have played their part, but so have consumers: we are simply eating more healthily.

Naturally, this poses a problem for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), the body that represents Britain's £67bn food and drink industry – the country's biggest manufacturing sector. On one hand it has to balance the need of its members to maximise profits. On the other, it has to convince government, pressure groups and the public that the industry is not out to make Britain overweight.

The trade body this week appointed Bell Pottinger to demonstrate that it is tackling public concerns. Measures include improving food labelling and the removal of vending machines from primary schools.

It is already at loggerheads with the Government's Food Standards Authority (FSA).

'The temperature has risen,' admits Bell Pottinger director Kevin Read. 'Food and drink is now a major social issue. People talk about it in the pub.'

Bell Pottinger will run a public affairs and PR brief focusing initially on vending, food labelling and advertising to children.

Awareness and regulation
A greater public understanding of diet's relation to health is taking its toll on the industry. Last Friday The Independent dedicated its front page to UK eating habits after soft drinks maker Britvic's share price crashed.

The worry for FDF members is that the Government is increasingly getting involved. 'The Government has been forced to respond to public concern,' says Read. 'But as it does so, Britain could become over-regulated.'

He admits the industry is worried about restrictions to innovation and promotion, and increased competition from European rivals.
But Richard Watts, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Bill campaign at Sustain, is unsympathetic: 'A number of measures taken by the industry are pretty close to cons. For example, there is more salt in certain McDonald's salads than in a Big Mac and fries. Also, there need to be fewer cover-ups. Last week's revelations about high levels of benzene in soft drinks will not improve consumer confidence.'

And professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), believes industry action on salt thus far is nowhere near sufficient. 'All members of the FDF need to reduce salt by at least a third and in some cases by more than half,' he argues. CASH suggests this reduction, if achieved, would save a minimum of 35,000 lives per year from stroke and heart attack.
'There is still much to be done, and the fact that some have rejected the FSA's proposed traffic-light labelling has not been welcomed,' adds MacGregor. 'Those that have launched their own labelling system are trying to confuse rather than enlighten.'

The long-running argument over food labelling illustrates the tension between regulators and industry. The traffic-light system to indicate sugar, salt and fat levels has been criticised by the FDF as crude and simplistic.'We're trying to inform and help rather than frighten and baffle,' says FDF deputy director-general Martin Paterson. 'We know our own customers.'

Last year, when the FSA launched a £6m advertising campaign telling consumers to stick to six grams of salt a day, Burger King threatened to stop co-operating on salt reduction (a threat it has since rescinded). Then Ruth Kelly stoked the food debate, using the Labour Party conference to demand the banning of sweets from schools.

'That was an emotionally driven action,' says Paterson. 'Should children really not be exposed to snacks?  The industry has made incalculable strides to improve the healthiness of its products and customer choice, but it cannot do it alone.'

The point, perhaps, is that public health will only improve if people exercise more – as well as watching what they eat. But this argument is not one the FDF can make too vociferously. 'We start from a position of distrust,' says Paterson. 'It's not our place to shout too loudly about other problems or it will be seen as scapegoating.'
Promotional clampdown

This balancing act is unlikely to get any easier. The long-awaited result of Ofcom's consultation on advertising food to children is expected later this month. It will almost certainly set out restrictions on this aspect of promotion. And many of the large players are already taking action. Last month, Walkers departed from its 'No More Mr Nice Guy' campaign and used its brand ambassador Gary Lineker to highlight instead the comparatively low salt content of its crisps.

The FDF argues the Walkers case is an example of the effectiveness of self-regulation, pointing to its food and health manifesto (see box). Launched 18 months ago, its pledges included better labelling, smaller portions and less aggressive promotion to children.

But even if the industry does show improvements, the broader picture shows consumers rejecting crisps and fizzy drinks. The 2005 ACNielsen survey of brands that pass through UK checkouts showed that, although Coca-Cola and Walkers are still the nation's favourites, both had significant revenue declines on the previous year. Established 'healthy' brands such as Tropicana fruit juices, Volvic mineral water and Kellogg's Special K all moved in the other direction, while growth brands such as Innocent fruit smoothies are making substantial inroads into the  soft drinks market.

All the evidence suggests consumer habits, as well as awareness, are changing fast. If the manufacturers represented by the FDF are to convince government and the public of their serious attitude to health then they require  a well-orchestrated campaign.

'We're cranking up PR activity,' says Paterson. 'Our arguments need
to be heard.'

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