One of Britain’s top doctors has accused the food industry of being “profoundly irresponsible” for adding unhealthy amounts of fat and salt to its products.
Lindsey Davies, the new president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, wants ministers to bring in legal minimum health standards for food if manufacturers do not undertake dramatic action to strip out harmful ingredients such as transfats and excess salt. Both are added during production and have been implicated in causing tens of thousands of deaths a year through strokes and heart attacks.
“The food industry should be about producing food, and food is a basic requirement of a healthy, productive life and wellbeing. Adding things to food that reduce health and wellbeing, such as transfats or too much salt, strikes me as profoundly irresponsible,” said Davies, who represents 3,500 public health doctors in the NHS, local government and academia. “Overall, I think it is profoundly disappointing that the food industry hasn’t taken its responsibilities more seriously.”
The links between unhealthy food and conditions such as heart disease, strokes, obesity and some cancers mean action is urgently needed, Davies added. Drink-driving laws, the ban on smoking in public places and the compulsory wearing of seatbelts show that the government sometimes has to intervene in order to protect people from health harms, she said.
While some supermarkets have made commendable progress in improving product recipes to make them healthier, too many have done too little, Davies said. New laws to ban unhealthily high levels of salt, transfats and saturated fats would be necessary without major progress by industry, she added.
It was “very odd” that there are not already legal health and safety standards for food, she said. “Unhealthy food is a major health problem in this country,” Davies said.
The Food and Drink Federation, which represents major producers and retailers, hit back. Barbara Gallani, its director of food safety and science, said Davies was “out of touch with what the industry has been achieving” in terms of reformulation. For example, transfats have been virtually eliminated and some firms have cut the amount of salt in products such as soups, cereals, biscuits and cakes, in some cases by up to 50%, in the last five years, said Gallani. Such a move would also deny consumers choice in their eating habits, she added.
The Food Standards Agency advises adults not to consume more than 6g of salt a day. Average intake fell from 9.5g to 8.6g between 2000 and 2008, an FSA spokesman said. Intake of transfats