the hsj interview: Sylvia Jay

Published: 22/07/2004, Volume II4, No. 5915 Page 24 25

The Food and Drink Federation director general claims manufacturers are slowly but surely making processed foods less unhealthy, and she's happy to put up a good fight over any suggestions the industry is the big bad wolf

Perhaps it is a trick of the light, but a certain frostiness seems to appear in the eyes of Sylvia Jay when public health minister Melanie Johnson is mentioned.

But the director general of the Food and Drink Federation has the burnished edges you would expect from someone who spent 20 years towards the top of the civil service, so she is not about to get too spiky.

It is undeniable that in the past 12 months the government has been pushing food and drink manufacturers very hard on public health. Hence the slight lowering of temperature.

In fact, Ms Jay rejects the notion that the industry has had to pedal faster since the new minister arrived. 'I wouldn't use Melanie Johnson [as the starting point].

The increase in activity came from the establishment of the food and health plan following the Curry Commission report [to examine the future of farming after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak] rather than the whim of any particular minister being put into post at any one time.'

But it is clear that Ms Johnson has been increasingly vexed at the unwillingness of manufacturers to address nutrition issues voluntarily - salt content in particular.

This came to a head last month when the FDF and a number of other trade associations accused the Department of Health of briefing newspapers against them.

They wrote an open letter to health secretary John Reid denouncing 'inept political spin' and 'misleading suggestions of lack of co-operation'. They also noted that Ms Johnson had cancelled a meeting on 15 June.

Ms Jay is still angry at what she sees as unhelpful - indeed 'nonsensical' - coverage.

'I think it was more to do with short-term politics, ' she says, 'and less to do with the long-term programme on which We are committed to working with the Food Standards Agency, and with government, if it wishes, on longterm, slow but sure, salt reduction in processed foods.'

A date for a make-up meeting has yet to be arranged. Ms Jay hopes when it does happen the DoH will be keen to hear about plans to include health promotion messages on product labels.

Salt content (or sodium, to be precise) continues to be the main issue for the industry - Ms Jay says she has been talking to the FSA 'in earnest' about this for two years.

She maintains that major reductions have already been made and that further plans have been submitted to government.

For example, salt in 'all leading branded' soups and meal sauces was cut 10 per cent last year, with more, unspecified reductions promised. A 10 per cent reduction in sliced bread in 2000 will be extended with a 5 per cent cut this year. The FDF says the snacks sector overall has cut salt levels by a quarter over the past 10 years - although, of course, the variety and volume consumption of these kinds of foods has greatly increased over the same period.

Ms Jay also rightly points out that 40 per cent of household food budgets is spent on takeaway or catered food, falling outside the remit of the FDF.

She is also entirely reasonable in stating that if a company wants to keep selling a product to people who like salt, it must gradually change custom and taste to stay in business. That said, she denies the FDF plans amount to a voluntary code on salt. 'A few weeks ago we published a summary of what we'd done, and for some reason the press seemed to think that we had suddenly come up with a plan for salt, which was completely wrong.'

The press release headed 'Food industry confirms further salt reduction plans' may have played a part here perhaps.

She says the FDF was happy to take the FSA's guidelines on salt reduction to heart despite the fact that 'to be quite frank, there was still considerable argument in the medical profession about how far salt was a danger to people who didn't already have hypertension'.

'But we decided that whatever the exact truth was, if the FSA was saying not more than six grams a day of salt, we must work to help them bring that about.'

So does she not think salt is bad for you? 'Well, I am not a medical expert. But if as a layman I look at some of the research data, I see there are differing views. The latest dietary survey from the government did seem to show that weight reduction, among those who are overweight, can have similar health benefits to cutting down on salt. But We are not in the business of saying the FSA is wrong.'

Labelling is another contentious issue for food manufacturers.

Both the Commons health select committee report on obesity and this month's FSA food action plan call for better signposting. Tesco recently announced that it would put clearer labelling on some of its own-brand products.

Ms Jay emphasises that labelling laws come from the EU - whatever the UK government says remains voluntary. 'I think there has been some confusion, either in the minds of government ministers, or in the minds of those recording what they think government ministers have said, when they talk about government ministers creating law in this area.'

She says about 80 per cent of FDF members provide full nutrition information. 'If a consumer's unhappy with the labelling, We are not in the business of saying that the consumer is wrong. I sometimes wonder if the variety of forms of information is part of the problem.

'Whether the answer is to provide yet more voluntary schemes, or find out what would be the clearest thing, and to work hell for leather in Brussels to amend that legislation, I am not sure, ' she says, while actually sounding pretty sure.

She is also sure that the kind of 'red light bad, green light good' scheme dreamed of by public health types is not on the cards.

'None of the retailers, none of the food service people and none of the manufacturers would follow that.

'And I am pretty sure that it would never be passed as law from Brussels. I may be totally wrong - write it down and if I am wrong you can come back to me in a couple of years.

'Let's say cheese. It will have a high in fat, a high in salt, a green (or a low) in sugar.Does that mean that cheese is bad for you? Cheese contains calcium. It is a most healthy, natural food, especially for children to eat.What are we doing demonising these foods?'

The FDF generally steers well clear of talking about products targeted at children. However, That is going to be where the battle will be fought - among other things the FSA plan recommends clear labelling for children's food and restrictions on advertising junk food to them.

And to be frank, Ms Jay's arguments seem a little shaky on this score. Apparently it is all a bit more complex than people think.

'The difficulty is that children eat lots of food that adults eat. So It is a bit difficult to talk about just children's products.

'If a product is aimed specifically at children, almost every manufacturer I've come across is reformulating to reduce salt levels.'

She says 'some companies' have policies about not targeting adverts at children under certain ages - although anyone seeing a child-oriented film like Shrek 2 recently will know just how many do not.

But Ms Jay contends that the joy of children's entertainment would otherwise be harmed: 'Saturday morning programmes are only the sort of programmes they are because of advertising.And are we absolutely sure that children's programmes are all children watch on a Saturday morning?'

Not entirely convincing.

And what would FDF members think of advertising restrictions - currently being considered as part of a review by regulator Ofcom.

'Some companies would be completely relaxed because It is already their policy. Other companies who market foods which parents thank God for every morning, because It is the only thing they can get their children to eat, will be less relaxed.

'And the guidelines are very strict already. But, clearly, some consumers are still dissatisfied. At the end of the day we are trying to stop bad eating habits in children and obesity. Will any of this have an effect? The only examples in the world that I know of where this has taken place have made not one bit of difference to obesity.'

The FDF has put in its contribution to the Choosing Health consultation and Ms Jay sat on one of the groups. It argues that individual responsibility should be balanced with ability to exercise it - and that education at a young age is vital.

'John Reid said to all of us who were there: 'One thing I am begging you; please do not come back at me and ask me to ban things.'

Those were his exact words. Why would he say that? I do not know.

Who can say what will happen just before an election?'

Sitting on one of the consultation groups, she must get annoyed with public health professionals who clearly have an ideological dispute with anyone bigger than an allotment holder selling food?

The opportunity for criticism is there; Ms Jay is not tempted. But she says: 'We are not the big bad wolf. It is not wrong to make money in business. But It is our responsibility to play our part in education, which we do. So I think It is a source of regret that our image is not more positive.'