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Risks attached to food and drink health campaign

Terry smiling headA regular flow of new products and orders confirms that the Scottish food and drink sector is in rude health. If that’s the appropriate word.

Supermarkets can’t get enough Scottish produce from cheese and biscuits to fish and beer. It adorns menus around the world and Scotland has some of the best restaurants in the UK.

But the country cannot hide from some awful food and drink related statistics. Obesity caused by poor diet and illnesses linked to sugary food and excessive drinking has given Scotland a reputation it is keen to shake off.  These trends have created an uncomfortable relationship with government.

While ministers are generally supportive of the industry, they are keen to tackle the underlying causes of poor health and this is bringing them into conflict with the industry’s leaders.

A consultation has been launched aimed at reducing obesity. Ministers propose a range of initiatives that will impact independent food retailers including a ban on price promotions and obligations regarding portion and calorie controls.  

Few will challenge the need to tackle underlying health issues, but there is concern that too often policies focus less on education and structural change and too much on penalties that simply hike up costs.

Andy Willox, the Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) Scottish policy convener, says the  proposals could have huge implications for Scotland’s independent food businesses, many of whom already face spiralling overheads and challenging competition.

He argues that firms of this sort have faced a slew of recent regulatory changes and it is costly to keep up with Holyrood’s constant demands. He wants ministers to consider whether these reforms are a “sensible course of action”.

David Thomson, CEO of Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Scotland, points out that a lot of progress has been made in reducing fat and sugar content – such as the reformulation of Irn-Bru to meet the UK government’s targets.

Manufacturers are not alone in expressing their worries about where all this is heading. Ewan MacDonald-Russell, the Scottish Retail Consortium’s head of policy, argues that retailers have done a lot in leading the drive for changes to product content and providing clearer customer information but says the labelling of products is a complicated area. Furthermore, a different Scottish approach to labelling could be confusing to consumers.

All this points to a dilemma for the Scottish government. It is supporting the sector’s attempts to double in size by 2030 but is also in danger of hindering it through punitive new policies.

Minimum pricing battle

A case in point is its well-publicised and long-running battle with the drinks industry – the whisky sector in particular – over minimum unit pricing. This is seen as using a sledgehammer to crush a nut and potentially damaging to prospects for growth at home.

The government argues that minimum pricing would help tackle the binge drinking culture and cut drink-related deaths. The industry believes it is the wrong tactic and that education is a better weapon.

To add a slightly bizarre twist to this particular case, we could see the Chancellor cut whisky duty in the November budget, in order to help stimulate demand, only for the Supreme Court to rule in favour of minimum pricing a few weeks later which would see prices go back up.

Health campaigners will argue that the industry is interested only in self-protection and is putting the nation’s health at risk for its own gain.

Industry has shown it can respond to these concerns by dealing with product content, better education and appropriate marketing, as indicated above.

This surely points the way to how the two should work together, not by adding to the burden of costs that companies are already expected to bear.

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