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Government or business: who’s driving change in the food and drink sector?

In 2021/22, 22.2% of children aged 4-5 in England and 37.7% of those aged 10-11 were either obese or overweight. If no further action is taken, 25% of all children under 16 could be obese by 2050. Elsewhere, in 2022 food and drink packaging accounted for the largest share of plastic packaging waste thrown out by households in the UK despite the changes in the policy landscape for single-use plastics in the last decade.

Both of these are trends that beg the question: what is the right balance between government and private sector action when it comes to determining what we consume, and how we deal with its effects?

The Government has clear goals to reduce childhood obesity and end plastic pollution by 2030 and 2040 respectfully – how food is presented to the consumer could help towards delivering both these aims.

Just recently, Action on Sugar called for the removal of packaging on sugar-rich products targeted at children. They are particularly focused on breakfast cereals and yoghurts, despite both having seen the largest reductions in sugars between 2015 and 2020 as part of the Government’s Sugar Reduction Programme.

Building on changes to labelling that supermarkets have made to date, the Government is currently seeking views on proposed changes to nutrition labelling, composition and standards in retained EU law. Labour are yet to say anything specific on packaging aimed at children but did include how they would end the promotion of junk foods targeted at children through advertising in one of their widely-trailed ‘Five Missions’ for government.

The Government wants to ensure “that consumers can have confidence in the food they buy, and any health benefits promoted on the label”, by reforming nutrition and health claims enforcement in England. These changes, while they may benefit consumers due to the health benefits the Government expects to follow, may have significant financial implications for businesses. The process may not happen for a couple of years yet, however the associated costs are something both government and businesses alike will have to bear in mind, particularly in a spluttering economy.

Supermarkets have so far taken it upon themselves to make any changes to the way in which their products are presented to consumers. Lidl has committed to removing cartoon characters from all unhealthy products by spring 2024, after it removed cartoon characters from cereal packaging in 2020, with Asda and Aldi following suit soon afterwards.

Turning to the waste our food and drink generates, the UK, along with other national governments, has agreed to end plastic pollution by 2040, and while measures have been put in place to help achieve that, the UK still faces challenges, particularly with plastic packaging recycling. In 2021, households generated 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging, with a markedly low recycling rate of 44.1%.

The Government has been proactive within the domain of packaging and plastic waste, exerting considerable effort to reform packaging norms and increase their environmental sustainability. However, following extensive engagement with industry and in light of the pressure facing both consumers and businesses, new rules to ensure packaging producers pay for the cost of their packaging will be deferred a year to 2025.

From the industry reaction to this shift, it’s clear that, whilst businesses are keen to do their bit, there is a lack of knowledge and guidance regarding a timeline for change which considers the undoubtable financial implications for businesses taking on the collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of products.

Labour have been less vocal about changing the way food is packaged. However, in the National Policy Forum document leaked earlier this year, they said they would ensure that 50% of all food purchased by the public sector is locally produced or certified to higher environmental production standards. However, they’re yet to say how they would implement that in practice or if it would apply to food packaging as well as the produce itself.

Changes in the regulatory landscape around food look likely to remain on the menu for policymakers in the medium-term, particularly once we’re the other side of the next general election. Both the main parties agree in principle that tackling childhood obesity and protecting the environment from packaging waste should be a priority, but neither seem to be in a rush to overhaul the way in which unhealthy foods are packaged or bring in radical policies to ensure packaging is made more sustainable.

Critics will argue this is a missed opportunity given the health and environmental challenges the UK is currently facing, though with current cost of living pressures, the short-term political risks associated with the action required to make a difference may continue to outweigh the upside of unlocking more long-term health and cost benefits for some time to come. In that context, it will continue to fall to business, at least in the short-term, to take the lead.