Role of the FSA in promoting healthy eating
Thursday 26 March 2009
Speech to Tackling Obesity Conference
Thank you very much.
We at the FSA see the Change for Life campaign and the Healthy Food Code as a real opportunity for us to work together across government and industry to improve the health of the nation.
It’s important that we enjoy a close, constructive relationship as we work together on the important next steps.
The stakes, as have already been outlined this morning, are tremendously high. Without radical action, scientists warn that almost nine in ten adults, and two-thirds of all children will be overweight or obese by 2050. A nightmare scenario for public health, and we must do everything we can to stop it.
We have to act, and we have to act now, to ensure that we address the very real threats to public health caused by poor diet and nutrition.
But what sort of action should we be taking? And how will we measure it? I know that many of you in the audience are already working with us and want to know what constitutes success in this area.
The Government want to create targets. Real targets that will deliver concrete health benefits to people across the country.
The question for us at the Food Standards Agency is how do we do it?
How we make things happen – because if we don’t, we shouldn’t be there.
Our role is to work with industry. Finding real practical ways forward that are both good for the public and good for business.
We’ve already had some real successes that have led to measurable benefits to the nation. But we’ve only just begun. We do need to go much further.
This is a good opportunity for me to say that the Food Standards Agency is focused on delivering real outcomes.
What we are trying to do
Alongside excellent independent science, we are determined to deliver outcomes that will reflect healthier weight and healthier lives across the population and that means long-term effort. So we are in this for the long haul and will devote effort, energy and resources to delivery in the short, medium and long term.
But the prognosis for the nation’s health, that we heard about earlier, compels us to go further. Faster.
Naturally, the Department of Health’s strategic approach to obesity is wider than ours, covering other areas such as exercise. What I’d like to talk to you about are the areas where the FSA leads in the Healthy Food Code, to illustrate some of the successes we’ve already had, to set out how we are working in partnership with industry, and to touch on the challenging targets we want to set.
Areas FSA leads on
Our role is 'to protect health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food and to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food'.
That means everyone’s interests, whether it is the mother racing around the supermarket shopping for her children, the busy office worker dashing out to buy a quick sandwich at lunchtime, or the student learning to cook for the first time.
The FSA role is to put the needs of consumers first – above all else – to act in their interests. We are an independent voice within Government, basing our work on the best scientific evidence and analysis we can find. And everything we do is open and accessible from our scientific research to our Board meetings, which are broadcast on the web.
We provide advice to the public and government on food safety, nutrition and diet.
We protect consumers through effective enforcement and monitoring. We are vigilant in our role of ensuring safer and healthier food. Tenacious in pursuing those who put this at risk
We also help consumers make informed choices about food through clear and accurate labelling on food. Giving them the information they need to make decisions about the food they buy. Taking them beyond the picture of their lasagne-ready meal to give them information about what’s in it - salt, sat fat and sugar levels.
The good news is that there have been some successes in this area which show it can be done. Working in voluntary partnership to achieve our aims has shown that there can be wins for everyone - good for consumers, good for public health and good for business.
Major projects I would highlight are:
Salt – Where we earned our spurs.
The work on reformulating products has resulted in a reduction in the people’s average salt intake has fallen from 9.5g to 8.6 since 2000. This represents a massive 19,700 tonnes of salt per year that has been removed from the UK diet. This is equivalent to the volume of over 50 community swimming pools.
Studies clearly suggest 1g reduction in the average salt intake would prevent at least 7,000 stroke and heart attack deaths a year in the UK. So this is a real result. But we are not complacent as we are continuing to work towards the target of 6g.
Saturated fat - using the same model as the salt work we’ve been working on reducing the amount of sat fat that people eat.
Saturated fat – intake is 20% higher than recommendations. Our target is to reduce that to below 11% of food energy by the end of 2010.
And we’ve put our money where our mouth is and launched a major £3 million Sat Fat campaign last month.
It has four strands: advertising, partnership with NGOs like the British Heart Foundation, promotion by industry.
And the food industry need to be applauded for the great work it has been doing already. There are already specific successes I’d like to highlight.
- Marks and Spencer 2007 figures showed a 30% reduction in sat fat in its sandwiches compared with 2005.
- Walkers crisps have reduced the amount of sat fat across almost all its range by 80% since 2003.
- Sainsbury’s has launched milk with a 1% fat content. While still retaining the same amount of calcium and protein.
- It is already hugely popular in the US and Canada, and the supermarket (Sainsbury’s) estimates that if UK semi-skimmed consumers were to switch to 1% milk, they could collectively reduce their saturated fat intake by 12,000 tonnes per year.
But I’m looking forward to raising our ambition. For more commitments from industry for reformulating salt, sat fat and sugar in food.
Labelling – We should pat ourselves on the back for this. Because there has been a real revolution here. Four years ago Front of Pack nutritional labelling did not exist but consumer research showed that it was needed. We are now able to help consumers make healthier choices as they toss their food into their shopping trolleys.
As you will all know there has been much debate about the best form of Front of Pack labelling. The FSA’s original research showed that colours helped consumers most, but what matters is what works.
So the independent evaluation of the three different approaches, multiple traffic lights, colour-coded GDA (hybrid approach) and GDA alone is very important. This research will establish which scheme, schemes or combination of element of schemes help consumers make healthier choices.
And the Agency will support whatever the results of the research show as being most effective in helping consumers.
We are looking at portion size because we believe it is an important factor in combating obesity. This was one of the areas covered by the Foresight Report. And we already have independent academic advice on the foods we need to focus on such as snacks.
We are working with industry to identify practically what we can do.
Why? Because we have heard the sobering statistics about mortality rates associated with poor diet. But also we need to take on board the morbidity rates. The terrible consequences for people of living with long term, incapacitating illness – often for many years.
The man in his 30s who has a heart condition who may live with his condition for decades. The diabetic young woman who will struggle with her condition while raising a family.
These are real people whose lives are devastated by these illnesses.
Diabetes, for example, costs the NHS £1 million an hour. And CVD is estimated to cost the UK economy £30.7 billion a year.
Catering/out of home
I also want to emphasise that the messages of the Healthy Food Code are not just about manufacturing and retailing. Catering and out-of-home eating have a significant place in the public’s diet and there is work for the FSA to be done here.
There has been a real revolution in this area in past 10 years.
Where eating out was once a treat for many families. Something for birthdays and anniversaries. It has now become routine.
People greatly underestimate how much they eat out. It includes grabbing sandwiches at lunchtime when walking down the street. Buying a quick snack for the train on the way home. We’re all doing much more of it than a generation ago.
The Cabinet Office Food Matters Report estimated that one in six meals is now eaten out of the home.
If you include snacking, men eat a quarter of their calories outside the home. Women around a fifth.
The average amount spent on food and drink (excluding alcohol) out of home is £11.41 a week.
Overall consumer expenditure on eating out hit £27.6 billion in 2005, a real-term growth of 29% in 10 years.
We are already working on this with a wide range of catering companies and their suppliers covering the quick service sector, workplace caterers, pubs, coffee shops and the most popular family restaurants.
Latest commitments from industry published recently shows that many healthier foods are now available.
And many food outlets are already providing nutritional information for your customers in a range of ways.
For example, some coffee chains have nutritional information on their websites.
McDonalds – have information on their tray liners.
This is a good start but what is most important is that we identify what works best to help consumers make informed choices. And what is practical for food businesses.
Don’t consumers have a right to be able to make the same level of informed choice when eating out as they do when shopping in their supermarket? Or to put it differently, given the amount we’re eating out, isn’t it vital?
I’ve just come back from New York, which has calorie-counted food in restaurants – it’s a great start. If they can do it why can’t we?
The FSA has already been working with Compass, Pizza Hut and Subway, who will be putting calorie information on their menu from June and we are confident that more will follow.
The world is changing. The economic climate is changing. The food agenda is changing. As value for money becomes a bigger issue for consumers. As they start to change what they buy and where they shop, we have to ensure nutrition and health remains on top of the agenda – for the FSA and food industry.
Like the other speakers, I don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge before those of us working in the public sector. We can’t deliver overnight. We need a concerted and co-ordinated evolution towards the aims of the Healthy Food Code.
Together we’ve already come a long way. And it’s only by working together in partnership across government
And I look forward to hearing how we do this in the following panel discussion.
Because we are all in this together. And together we can make the difference.