Consistent food labelling system is rolled out across UK

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 20 June 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f4010

Re: Consistent food labelling system is rolled out across UK

Clearer and easier to read food labelling is a small welcome step forward: companies that are backing the voluntary scheme should be applauded and supported. Although The Department of Health hope that most others will follow suit and start using the new labelling on their packaging, it is likely that continued pressure will be needed if this is to be an all-inclusive system. Evaluation in the short and long term will be needed.

Over the last few decades government policy in relation to public health measures have tended to concentrate on individuals. Social, economic and environmental measures have often been neglected. Recently, medical royal colleges and faculties have come together and produced a wide-ranging set of recommendations that have the clear objective of reducing the prevalence of obesity.(1) This approach is in line with a seminal document of public health – The Ottawa Charter.(2) The Charter encourages health professionals and governments not only to focus on individuals but also to change the environments in which people live. However, it is not just the physical environment, social norms have to be targeted and changed.

There is no single way to promote healthy eating or tackle obesity and action will be needed in many settings including schools, workplaces, primary care, hospitals and the community. Traffic light food labelling was included in “Measuring Up: The Medical Profession’s Prescription for the Nations Obesity Crisis” but it is now time for other recommendations to be actioned, including:
•a ban on advertising of foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt before 9pm,
•a duty should be placed on all sugary soft drinks,
•a new statutory requirement on all schools to provide food skills – including cooking and growing – alongside a sound theoretical understanding.(1)

Although obesity has been a “Public health enemy” for some time,(3) there is growing consensus that it should be considered one of the most serious public health challenges as its consequences include heart disease, cancers and diabetes.(4-8) To tackle this important issue using multiple strategies, high-level strategic leadership will be crucial for gaining support in different settings, and for maintaining long-term momentum.(7) There is now a pressing need for stronger and more comprehensive government action.

1) Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Measuring Up: The Medical Profession’s Prescription for the Nations Obesity Crisis. London: Academy of Medical Royal Colleges 2013
2) World Health Organization. Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. Copenhagen: World Health Organization, 1986.
3) Garrow J. Obesity — Public health enemy No 2? Health Education Journal 1986; 45(1): 57-58.
4) Lobstein T, Baur L, Uauy R. Obesity in children and young people: a crisis in public health. Obesity Reviews, 2004, 5(Suppl 1):4–104.
5) Foresight. Tackling Obesities: Future Choices – Project Report. Government Office for Science: London. 2007
6) World Health Organization. Global status report on noncommunicable diseases. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2010.
7) World Health Organization. Population-based approaches to Childhood Obesity Prevention. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2012.
8) NICE. Local government public health briefings - Preventing obesity and helping people to manage their weight. London: NICE, 2013

Competing interests: No competing interests

23 June 2013
Michael C. Watson
Associate Professor in Public Health,
University of Nottingham
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, D86, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham. NG7 2HA
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