Nothing sweet about a 'sugar law'

Posted on January 4, 2016

The Daily Mail reports today that the British Retail Consortium (BRC) - the industry body that represents supermarkets among others - has called for a law on sugar reduction. Such a law would set targets for reducing sugar in products, either by cutting the percentage of sugar or by reducing portion sizes.

The BRC's Andrew Opie told the Mail: 'We believe we’ll make the most progress by having targets for reducing sugar from those categories contributing the most to excessive consumption by children, as part of a wider reduction strategy. To be effective, they need to apply to all food companies, which is why they need to be mandatory... It means we see change across the board and those companies that are more progressive in removing sugar are not penalised.'

Such a move is shocking but in a sense not surprising. The BRC is demanding a 'level playing field' so that policies imposed on big manufacturers and retailers are not circumvented by smaller players. Perhaps the BRC has seen which way the wind is blowing from talking to ministers and civil servants and decided to defend its own narrow position. But by caving in on the question of sugar, the BRC is only encouraging anti-sugar campaigners - and public-health campaigners in general - to attack consumer choice. In the long term, that's a very bad move.

At the moment, consumers can make up their own minds about how much sugar they wish to eat. For many sweet products, there are already low-sugar and sugar-free versions available - particularly for those much-demonised soft drinks. For those who want to cut sugar, they can switch products. For those who prefer the flavour of the full-sugar version, they are well catered for, too. This move will, in the long run, end up removing sugary products from the shelves or make them significantly smaller.

Will this make the UK a healthier place? That seems unlikely, but it will suck some of the joy from what we eat. It also reinforces the message that government, industry and campaigners should decide for us what we eat, drink, smoke or vape.

We've seen this tendency to cut and run from industry before, and it didn't end well. Before the law banning smoking in workplaces in England was passed, the Labour government had proposed an exemption for private members' clubs like working men's clubs. However, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) refused to back such an exemption on the grounds that it, too, wanted a 'level playing field'. The result was a comprehensive smoking ban, leading to thousands of pub closures and making life ever harder for working men's clubs - and giving further encouragement to campaigners to pursue other kinds of ban. Now, those campaigners are back suggesting that smoking outside pubs should be banned. Well done, the BBPA!

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers, will no doubt be livid at the BRC announcement. There are plenty of well-paid food campaigners with nothing better to do than bang on about sugar, and plenty of government ministers looking to make a name for themselves by being seen to do something about health. The best defence to that assault would be for industry and consumers to maintain a united front against the assault on choice. The BRC might come to regret today's announcement. Consumers certainly will.