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Supermarkets criticise obesity strategy’s lack of mandatory restrictions on sugar

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i4597 (Published 22 August 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4597
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

Major UK supermarkets have criticised the government’s watered-down strategy to tackle childhood obesity for failing to impose mandatory restrictions on the amount of sugar in food.

The long awaited plan for tackling obesity in England, published on 18 August,1 has been heavily criticised by doctors’ leaders, dentists, and campaign groups for recommending only voluntary action on sugar limits and failing to impose measures to limit advertising and “two for one” deals on unhealthy food.

In a surprising twist, retailers joined the chorus of disapproval, arguing that mandatory reductions were needed to create a level playing field for all retailers by ensuring that action was taken across the board.

Mike Coupe, chief executive of the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, was among those calling for tougher action. In a letter to the Times he wrote, “We need compulsory and measured targets for the reduction of sugar (and other nutrients such as saturated fat) across the whole of the food and drink industry. Nothing less will work. We have seen this with voluntary targets on reformulation and labelling, which led to a piecemeal response from business.

“We also believe that the government should have used this opportunity to create a level playing field across the broader food and drink sector to make traffic-light labelling compulsory, whether you are buying food or drink from a shop, a restaurant or as a takeaway.”2

The British Retail Consortium, which represents UK supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda, and Waitrose, also called for mandatory reductions. It said that the government would struggle to meet its 20% reduction in sugar without legislative action, citing previous experience with calls for voluntary action on salt.

Andrew Opie, the consortium’s director of food policy, quoted in the Times,3 said, “The only way to achieve the targets that the government have set out is to ensure a level playing field across the food industry.”

“By reducing the salt content of their own-brand products at a faster rate than some branded competitors, retailers found themselves at a competitive disadvantage. This is why we had previously called on government to consider mandatory targets for sugar reduction.”

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