The food industry and Brexit: Will health and obesity get lost in the fray?

As the food and drink industry faces the uncertainty of Brexit head on, will health and obesity get lost in the fray? The Food Foundation was invited to attend the Food and Drink Federation’s annual convention on 11 July, and it certainly seems that Brexit and trade are not being linked with the industry’s work on health and obesity.

The event focussed on three key issues facing the sector: Brexit, the government’s industrial strategy and health and obesity – all of which tie into the Food Foundation’s work around food systems. It was hugely encouraging that the entire second half of the convention was on obesity and making food and beverage products healthier. These issues are very clearly on the industry’s agenda and they are taking them seriously. However, disappointingly, much of the conversation on health and obesity stopped at reformulation, rather than considering the broader range of policies and practices available to the industry for tackling obesity.

In particular, the convention missed the opportunity to make the connection between the thorny issues of Brexit and trade – and the need for the food and drink industry to “grow more, sell more, trade more”[1] – with the need to address obesity in the UK (and globally). Economic and business growth were the focus of the convention’s panels around Brexit, however this shouldn’t mean that health comes second fiddle. British produce is synonymous with exceptional quality, but great British food also has the potential to pave the way in terms of health and sustainability. The ‘grow, sell, trade more’ mantra is missing the mark; British food and drink industry could assume a forward-facing leadership role in linking growth, trade and health. This is entirely feasible given that healthier products are currently a fast growth area in the sector.[2][3][4]

And as for childhood obesity, the industry is signalling they’re interested in moving beyond sugar reformulation – as several speakers talked about how the industry would welcome a focus on overall calorie reduction. But while reformulation is a crucial step, it is not the be-all-and-end-all in preventing childhood obesity. Policies and practices shifting the food system and food environment towards vegetables, fruits, pulses and whole grains need to go hand in hand with those on reformulation.

The Food Foundation’s Peas Please initiative is one way companies could do this. We’re encouraging actors right across the food system to sign up and help everyone in the UK consume one more portion of veg a day. The commitments range from adding more incentives and price promotions on vegetables to increasing the vegetable content in ready meals, and more. At our Veg Summit on 24 October 2017, these trailblazing companies will make specific commitments that will be robustly monitored and evaluated. If your company or sector would like to be one of the trailblazers increasing veg consumption, please sign up!


[1] The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto, 2017