Why UK’s regulatory environment misses the mark on promoting healthy diets

Although there currently is a great deal of work and an increased awareness surrounding the issues of obesity, the United Kingdom is far from achieving a comprehensive national Food Policy that could better manage all the elements which contribute to unhealthy diets. In actuality, within recent years, with the introduction of the coalition government, there has instead been a retreat to days of old, where food politics are being treated with low priority and are being left once again to the forces of the neo-liberal market to sort out (Schepers, 2010).

The current government is passing the responsibility of public health into the hands of corporations, local level bodies and individuals, who, albeit must certainly be part of the solution, are not individually the key drivers for change. Governments must also work towards creating effective policies to lead and organise coordinated efforts in new ‘joined up’ ways with cross governmental and multi-faceted approaches involving all stakeholders.

Food Policy has evolved. It is not an inevitable or static concept, but one that is shaped and constructed by a variety of events and actors. From assessing its history, a path of development can be traced leading food policy to incorporate more than simply an increase in food production or regulated distribution as seen during the world wars (Lang, Barling, & Caraher, 2009). However, the definition remains fragmented between those who understand Food Policy as a means to produce more food (Tarrant, 1980), as a tool to influence market factors and increase economic growth (Timmer, Falcon, & Pearson, 1983), as a way to guide consumption habits in order to curb ill health related to changing diets (Powell and Longfield, 2005) (Robbins, 1979), or instead, as a more multi-faceted issue involving not only production and distribution but also how the growing, moving, purchasing and consuming of food affects our environment, health and other social-cultural factors (Lang, Barling, & Caraher, 2009).

Strategic planning

In a world more integrated, interconnected and intertwined than ever before, with open markets, the increasing ease of travel and exchange of information, we require systems and frameworks that can deal with the bigger picture. This was so spectacularly validated by the recent economic financial crisis which originated in the United States but resonated in every country with lasting and devastating effects. According to World Bank statistics, 53 million people were projected to fall into $2 per day poverty in 2009 as a direct result of the financial crisis (Schifferes, 2009). These kinds of effects cannot be dealt with simply by one sector looking at one problem individually. It requires the strategic planning of policy makers from a multitude of issue areas to coordinate, share resources and reduce duplication (Bryden et al., 2013) (Kraak and Story, 2010) in order to create a comprehensive solution to an interdisciplinary problem.

Authors such as Kraak and Story (2010) put forward that it is only through public-private relationships that necessary changes can be made to create a more supportive environment for individuals to make healthier choices. Tackling obesity and health issues require a multi-faceted and multi-levelled approach at the community, regional, national and global level, involving cooperation from the private, public and non-profit sectors. This is necessary in order to achieve real changes in regards to access, food poverty, racial discrimination and other societal-cultural factors, thus normalising healthful behaviours. This is a responsibility for all to undertake and appropriate policies should reflect this.

However, the UK government’s approach to public health issues, related to food, ignore the evidence offered to them over and over again, and instead have made food an invisible component of social policy (Dowler, 2005). There is an assumption that food should be allocated to the private, domestic sphere, outside the jurisdiction of the state (Dowler and Jones, 2003). This has come to create an aloof policy environment, where evidence is ignored and targets are weak and unclear (Schepers, 2010).

For example, in the case of the UK’s obesity epidemic, it has been widely recognised that obesity is not only the result of individual choice but involves a more intricate composition of inputs from the social, physical, economic and policy environment (Dowler and Jones, 2003)(Kraak and Story, 2010)(Ludwig and Nestle, 2008)(Lyons and Langille, 2000). However, the UK continues to proceed with efforts aimed at changing individual behaviour by implementing programmes to better educate and train individuals how to eat healthier and cook (Dowler and Jones, 2003)(Huang and Glass, 2008). These actions ignore the systemic problems, such as poverty and socio-cultural factors, which the evidence clearly points to. An effective policy must be clear about what the problem is. All too often issues such as “hunger” and “obesity” are siloed into all too simplified understandings and result in limited solutions that act as band aid solutions that do not tackle the root causes of systemic problems such as poverty and inequalities. Bryden et al. (2013) conducted a study which concluded that the most effective were those which had clearly defined targets and outcomes. Through listening to the evidence, understanding the problems at hand and setting clear targets and outcomes in a comprehensive strategy, the government can begin to address the problems with our broken food system.

Another key to creating an effective food policy entails putting the public’s interest high in priority (Freedhoff et al., 2011)(Hashem et al., 2011)(Ludwig and Nestle, 2008)(Powell and Longfield, 2005). However, as Lees-Marshment (2001) argues, politicians today design policies for the “electoral market” and only deliver once in power. This strategy has been experienced time and time again, and does not put the interest of the public always first. It instead puts the politician’s interest to stay in power first and the interests of the public are only given attention if they are sure to win votes. There is no “rocking the boat”. Which is an understandable fear, as the food industry provides the UK with millions of jobs and with the rapid pace of change in the market economy it becomes difficult to properly regulate it (Schepers, 2010). This leads to governments being tempted to retreat and “leave it to the market” or pursue voluntary agreements. However, it evades the government of responsibility and places the interests of businesses over those of the public (Freedhoff et al., 2011)(Hashem et al., 2011)(Ludwig and Nestle, 2008)(Powell and Longfield, 2005). This is so evidently demonstrated by the governments desire to adhere to the interests of the food industry over public health in the new Responsibility Deal (RD). They have taken a voluntary approach to public health rather than implementing much more effective state regulation (Hashem, Haigh, & Powell, 2011).

There is a current struggle between the interest of public health and those of the economic market. An example of this tension can be observed from the Public Health Responsibility Deal, which has been accused of being a weak attempt at curbing ill health related to people’s diets (Hashem et al., 2011). It is a voluntary guideline asking food companies to pledge certain promises to make changes that they believe will reduce the amount of non-communicable diseases in the UK. The RD’s fundamental principle is to take a “partnership approach” with industry instead of state regulation (Hashem et al., 2011: 3). Here, organisations are required to sign up to a set of ‘core commitments’ and ‘supporting pledges’.

Right from the introduction of the policy, organisations such as Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation along with a few others have refused to sign up to the deal, accusing government for placing food manufacturers of fatty, sugary and salty goods at the heart of writing government policy on obesity and other diet related diseases (Bosley, 2011). The NGO, Sustain released a publication recently condemning the RD. Through their study they exposed how “food pledges in the RD are minor and allow industry to appear to be helping to improve public health without having to do very much — or in some cases nothing at all.” (Hashem, Haigh, & Powell, 2011). This is because food companies are businesses that survive in a harsh, competitive environment and thrive to obtain increased profits for shareholders (Schepers, 2010) (Ludwig and Nestle, 2008). Any change that is likely to reduce sales and profitability will undoubtedly be opposed or undermined.

This RD is the governments way to pass off risky problems that they are unable to find solutions to, and keep the large food companies happy enough while fooling the general public into thinking they are doing something to tackle our public health crises. Yet, the Coalition government’s focus still leans heavily on the market to deal with many issues. One would think that the events of the financial crises, which shook the foundations of the trust put into neo-liberal market ideology, would see governments begin to realise that they too have a responsibility to fill. However, much of the world continues to go about policy ‘business as usual’. This exhibits the lack of ability to link evidence with policy on the part of the government as well as how they continue to place interests in the health of the market over the health of their citizens.

The Cabinet Office’s Food Matters paper published in 2008 laid out the many failures to the market to which “[…] policy makers are still refusing to address them. How much evidence of food’s impact on the environment or health or social inequalities is needed for a new direction to be chartered?” (Food Ethics, 2013: 4). Nevertheless, Defra’s once celebrated and progressive initiatives in establishing a comprehensive national food policy, which came close with their Food2030 paper (Defra, 2010), became subject to a 29% departmental cut back (compared to all other departments averaging only 19%) with the induction of the new coalition government (SDC, 2011: 34). Such cut backs diminished their capacity to continue to build momentum which has resulted in the original commitments in Food2030 to be ‘narrowed down’ considerably (SDC, 2011). In an article written by Food Manufacture, Lang accused governments of “turning the policy clock back 10 years” (Colombini, 2011). These cut backs are a clear message from the new governments demonstrating their lack of interest and level of priority set to really tackling our broken food system and ailing public’s health. It is also a striking admission of the government’s inability to match policy with the evidence.

The UK has much to offer in its ability to tackle the bigger issues in order to fix the food system and save its citizens from unnecessary harm. However, as the current policy environment stands today, it is failing to secure public health outcomes through its approach in tackling obesity. It needs to refocus its efforts and reframe how obesity and healthy diets are being approached. It needs to be understood that food fuels life, that it cannot just be considered a commodity on the global market and that choices are not made in a vacuum. Individuals cannot be the centre of blame for their poor diets and ill health.

Individual behavioural change may play a part in the solution, but government regulation must also be part of the strategy. Obesity is a serious issue affecting people across all demographics and costing the state and its citizens billions of pounds as well as feeling immense social impacts. This can no longer be a low priority for governments and they can no longer continue to ignore the evidence.

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Originally published at www.contributoria.com.