Government anti-obesity drive branded ‘woefully inadequate’

A GOVERNMENT strategy to reduce obesity by telling people to eat less has been branded a “cop out” and “woefully inadequate” by campaigners.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley hailed progress in the Responsibility Deal with food producers yesterday as he announced a new “national ambition” to bring down England’s obesity levels by 2020.

But he said he was not in favour of regulating the food industry to achieve this and called on people to take responsibility for their own health, warning that Britons should be eating five billion fewer calories a day.

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Campaigners, who had called for specific targets and a single food labelling system so shoppers can see clearly the levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in foods they are buying, reacted angrily.

Television chef Jamie Oliver said: “Simply telling people what they already know – that they need to eat less and move more – is a complete cop out. The country’s bill of health is shocking, and it’s not going to get any better over the next 30 years if a clearly defined plan isn’t put into place soon...This whole strategy is just worthless, regurgitated, patronising rubbish.”

Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Obesity is without doubt one of the most significant and dangerous public health issues of our time and the food and drinks industry has a very important role to play.

“The Department of Health is right to recognise that but it’s disappointing to see such an emphasis on just cutting calories.

“There are other things to consider too, like reducing saturated fat. If industry wants to be part of the solution then they should make sure we all have the information we need to make healthy choices, so colour-coded front-of-pack labelling must show calories but also saturated fat, salt and sugar.”

The new obesity strategy says that, on average, adults are exceeding their recommended calorie intake by 10 per cent. Mr Lansley insisted “more progress has been made more quickly” through the Responsibility Deal with food and drink manufacturers than would have been managed through legislation.

He also said the Government would continue to look at the evidence on measures such as a “fat tax” on fatty foods, which Prime Minister David Cameron has previously said he would consider.

While he would not rule out tougher regulation, Mr Lansley said: “We have always been clear that we don’t want to impose costs on business and consumers if we can avoid doing so”. He said a regulatory approach to unhealthy foods would be incredibly “burdensome” and would take years to go through.

Asked why the Government had chosen to set an “ambition” of a “downward trend” in obesity levels rather than specific targets, Mr Lansley said: “We like to use language that conveys the sense of what we are doing. We see it as a national ambition.”

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “The Government’s approach to tackling obesity in England is woefully inadequate. Almost a quarter of the population is now obese, and the cost to the NHS and the wider economy is rapidly rising.

“The Government calls on people to cut down the calories they eat but isn’t giving them the tools to do so.

“It must make sure front-of-pack traffic light labelling is used on all food products, and clear calorie labelling is provided in all food chains.

“Food and drink manufacturers must cut fat and sugar, and therefore calories, from their products where possible and promote healthier options. But expecting them to do this voluntarily through a vague ‘call to action’ is naive. We need a proper strategy which includes ambitious targets. We don’t have time for half measures.”

More than 60 per cent of adults in England and a third of 10 and 11-year-olds are overweight or obese. Mr Lansley said he would like to see school and work canteens carrying nutritional information about the calories in meals.

The strategy comes as new guidelines are published increasing the recommended number of calories people need to eat each day to maintain a healthy weight.

For men, the calorie amount is now 2,605 calories a day, up from 2,550 in 1991. For women, the figure is 2,079, up from 1,940.