A deal for healthy living

More than 150 food and drinks companies have signed up to a new voluntary scheme to prevent obesity and alcoholism.

A 'responsibility deal' sounds like something you might make a truant child sign up to, so why are Britain's food and drinks companies rushing to put their names to the Government's latest wheeze to stop us all becoming fat and alcoholic?

More than 150 companies, including big names such as Unilever, Carlsberg and Mars, have signed up to the scheme. The supermarket giants are also on the list but predictably there is already dissent in the ranks.

Voluntary agencies such as Alcohol Concern, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians have refused to be part of the deal, arguing that the industry has had too much power, and that the pledges that they are signing up to are not specific enough.

Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, doesn't pull his punches. 'The deal on alcohol is clearly the result of determined drinks industry lobbying coupled with a coalition government seemingly in thrall to business,' he says. 'All the evidence so far is that the alcohol industry has no interest in reducing alcohol consumption. We will continue to call for laws to compel drinks companies and retailers to sell alcohol responsibly, with mandatory labelling, health warnings and reduced marketing.'

Sir Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians' special adviser on alcohol, is equally damning. 'The industry pledges published in various newspapers do not give practicing doctors, who see the rising tide of health harm from drink in their daily practice, any confidence that they will get to the core of how we reverse this entirely preventable cause of illness and death,' he complains.

The heart disease prevention expert Professor Simon Capewell even went as far as describing the deal as a 'cynical public relations smokescreen for industry interests'.

Legislation vs voluntary

These critics would rather see legislation put in place to rein in the excesses of the food and drink industry. Instead, the deal is a voluntary compact between industry and government.

Sarah Hanratty, head of communications and social affairs at the Portman Group, an organisation founded by drinks manufacturers to promote sensible drinking and avoiding alcohol misuse, denies that there has been an easy ride. 'There's no doubt about it; this will be a significant challenge for the industry,' she says. 'The responsibility deal is a real opportunity. It enables the industry to demonstrate through actions that alcohol producers are serious about tackling alcohol misuse and doing what they can to create a more responsible drinking culture in the UK.'

The deal, unveiled by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley in March 2011, has one major plus as far as the Government is concerned - it doesn't cost them anything at all. Instead, the big brands are shouldering the burden of new labelling, advertising and other strategies.

This can all be done at no cost to the taxpayer. Hanratty says: 'Drinkaware, for example, is the main provider of consumer education about alcohol and is entirely funded by the alcohol industry including the £100 million consumer facing campaign Why let good times go bad? We do this to help get the message through that alcohol can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle.'

Richard Sunderland, chief executive of branding group Heavenly, says that the food and drink companies are not just signing up to this out of the goodness of their hearts - or, indeed, for the good of ours. It also makes them look good. 'Brands being responsible is the new done thing,' he says. 'We are living firmly in the age of responsibility . The economy, community, lifestyle - we are being encouraged to be more responsible in all walks of life, by the government, by our employers and, of course, by the brands that reflect and shape trends in our society.'

Sunderland argues that, if Britain's food and drink brands are not seen as doing the right thing, consumers will make them pay for it. 'We live in the age of the activist consumer. Brands behaving badly will be outed and criticised roundly before you can say Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Responsible behaviour gets rewarded - not just through sales, but through positive news stories, engaged consumers and favourable pats on the head from the government.'

Is it just spin?

Chris Arnold, creative partner at advertising agency Creative Orchestra, is less impressed. He coined a new phrase 'healthwash' to describe the activities of food and drink companies who are trying to look responsible. He argues that companies are under immense pressure to give customers more information about calories and alcohol units, and will use a lot of spin to make themselves look good for providing this.

Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the Food and Drink Federation, which represents the industry, says the deal involves 'challenging pledges' for all concerned. 'This is the best way,' she says of the voluntary compact. 'It is much quicker than legislation.'

Gallani claims accusations of 'healthwash' levelled at the industry were 'not fair', adding: 'The pledge to reduce salt in particular will be very challenging.'

Hanratty also rejects any suggestions about spin. 'Despite what the critics say, it is absolutely not in the interests of any industry, not least the alcohol industry, to market its products in a way that is associated with misuse or irresponsible consumption,' she says. 'The industry has a real interest in reducing alcohol misuse and one way to do this is by providing better consumer information to help people make informed choices. As an industry, we are ideally placed to communicate directly with consumers and use existing marketing channels to reinforce messages about sensible drinking and recommended daily units.'

More importantly the companies have to be seen to get their involvement right or it could result in consumers becoming cynical about their motives.

Food companies, in particular, are once bitten, twice shy, when it comes to making the wrong marketing call and looking irresponsible. In 2003, Cadbury signed up with the Youth Sport Trust to launch a scheme called Get Active, which allowed schools to collect chocolate wrappers in exchange for sports equipment. The media had a field day with the campaign, while the Food Commission pointed out that a school will need to encourage children to spend more than £2,000 on chocolate and consume nearly 1.25 million calories - the equivalent of more than 2,400 100g bars of Dairy Milk - to win a set of volleyball posts and a net. The company, which is now a major sponsor of the Olympics, has said that it has since changed its strategy, and 'would not do anything that would seek to encourage people to eat more chocolate'.

Sunderland says that food companies have learned from Get Active. 'They have learned to make sure that these campaigns are for the good of the country, not the good of the advertiser's bank balance,' he explains. 'In terms of the Olympics, I imagine that the buzzwords from the sponsors involved will be community, how can their actions create more unity and spirit; accountability, how can it be proven to be worthwhile and not profligate; and legacy.'

For the food and drinks industries, the stakes involved in the responsibility deal are high. Get it wrong, and they will lose the trust of consumers, and are likely to find that legislation is put in place to pull them up. For Health Secretary Lansley, currently wrestling with thorny NHS issues, the stakes may be even higher.

Shadow Health Secretary Diane Abbott complained that the responsibility deal would fail because 'you cannot conflate corporate responsibility with public health'. To retain credibility, Lansley and the food and drink industries must prove her wrong.

Responsibility deal

Objectives:

Pillar one: To enable, encourage and incentivise consumers to adopt a better diet and to increase their levels of physical activity as part of a positive decision to lead a healthier lifestyle.

Pillar two: To enable and encourage people to drink sensibly and responsibly.

Pillar three: To extend the scope and effectiveness of occupational health services through businesses, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, with an emphasis on maintaining a healthier lifestyle amongst the whole workforce and thereby reducing sickness absence.

What is the industry signing up to?

  • Calories on restaurant menus from September 2011
  • Removal of artificial trans fats by end of 2011
  • Lower salt in food to levels agreed by responsibility deal
  • Unit labelling on more than 80 per cent of alcohol by 2013, plus health warnings on drinking when pregnant
  • Alcohol industry will not advertise on poster sites within 100m of schools
  • New sponsorship code promoting responsible drinking