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Legislation unveiled in the UK last week on school meals once again puts the issue of childhood obesity centre stage. Food and drink companies may complain that the authorities are making them scapegoats but, writes Chris Brook-Carter, evidence suggests they are still not doing enough to help their own cause.

The most recent food and drink industry's school report made for familiar reading: "Can do better!" But how should we look upon the overhaul of school food in England, announced last week? Enlightened legislation with only the wellbeing of our children at heart? Or another draconian example of a nanny-state's desire to control everything we do by limiting our rights to choose?

I doubt anyone will raise an objection to the government's efforts to improve the nutritional standards of school meals. As Food and Drink Federation director general Melanie Leech said: "The UK food and drink manufacturing industry fully supports the government's drive to improve the standards of school meals, and played a constructive part in the school food consultation process."

However, she added: "FDF regrets that the standards ban certain foods from being vended in schools. Positive actions are always more effective than prescription."

Banning fizzy drinks and limiting choice like this will do little to persuade children to stop consuming CSDs (carbonated soft drinks) - they will just go outside of school to get them. Once again, the soft drink and food industries have been made the scapegoat for the current obesity crisis, when a more balanced approach, involving education, diet and exercise, would have been more fruitful.

As Unilever chairman Gavin Neath told the Annual Conference of the Federation of Bakers last week, our industries can act to address the problem of unhealthy diets, but there is much more the government can and must do to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles and take more exercise. "The task now is for all of us to identify and implement solutions which get to the heart of these problems without getting involved in some of the emotion," he said.
Although the soft drinks industry may feel aggrieved by the legislation, it can ill afford to feel sorry for itself. Legislation such as this has been a long time coming and too few drink and food groups - for all their rhetoric - are doing enough globally to convince authorities that they can be responsible partners in the debate.

And it is hardly a problem restricted to the UK. The move in England follows news earlier in the month that US soft drinks producers have agreed to stop selling their full-calorie products in the country's schools in a bid to fight rising child obesity.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and the American Beverage Association volunteered for the scheme under a plan drawn up by former US President Bill Clinton.

This was quickly followed by calls in New Zealand by government officials to stop the sale of full-calorie soft drinks in schools before 2009/10, when the US is aiming to achieve its complete ban

A recent industry briefing by our sister site just-food makes for some interesting reading. It delves into the actions of the world's top food companies. The lot of the soft drinks sector is so tied up with that of the snack food industry (even without taking into account those groups that produce both products, such as Cadbury Schweppes and PepsiCo) that it makes for very relevant reading.

The briefing points out that, according to researchers from City University in London, the world's top 25 food companies are still not doing enough to tackle obesity and other health-related issues.

The university analysed the top ten food manufacturers, top ten food retailers and top five foodservice companies. According to Professor Tim Lang, one of the report's authors: "Their performance is by and large pathetic."

The report, which analysed company annual reports and statements to autumn 2005, found that only six out of the 25 companies reported that they have a board member or senior personnel responsible for health-related matters: Cadbury Schweppes, Kraft, Nestlé, Ahold, McDonald's and Yum!.

Meanwhile, only four out of the 25 companies had any policies on advertising, and all of them were manufacturers; Cadbury Schweppes, Danone, Nestlé and Unilever.

Meanwhile, in terms of NPD, only ten out of 25 companies reported action on salt levels; Cadbury Schweppes, ConAgra, Kraft, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Ahold, Carrefour, Tesco and Compass. Five of the companies reported action on sugar; ConAgra, Kraft, PepsiCo, Unilever and Ahold, and just four reported action on fat; Kraft, PepsiCo, Compass and Yum!.

The sad fact is that the issue of health has topped the headlines in this industry for years, but too many companies continue to bury their heads in the sand.

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