FSA calls for smaller can sizes

FSA calls for smaller can sizes

The announcement by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) of voluntary recommendations on added sugar levels in soft drinks received a mixed response from campaigners while industry advocates were pleased that the FSA had acknowledged the work already done to develop healthier products. Ben Cooper reports.

Efforts by the UK soft drinks industry to reduce sugar levels have seemingly been vindicated by the country's food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which last Friday (26 March) called for voluntary reductions in sugar and saturated fats in food and drinks and smaller pack sizes for full-sugar products.

To the dismay of some campaigners, the FSA is recommending voluntary action by companies rather than mandating change. The agency also explicitly commended the "excellent work" that the industry has already done.

On the face of it, the final recommendations, which followed a consultation period in the summer of 2009, do not appear overly onerous.

For existing carbonated, dilutable, still and juice drinks containing 8 g total sugar/100 ml or more, levels of added sugar have to be reduced by at least 4% by the end of 2012, from the levels in 2008. This reduction should be accompanied by a calorie reduction unless a technical case can be made that this is not achievable.

New products containing more than 8g total sugar/100ml should have at least 4% less added sugar than the nearest equivalent existing product on the market in 2008.

The FSA has also made recommendations regarding available pack sizes, and has given industry considerably longer to comply in this area. For existing and new single-portion carbonates, still and juice drinks containing added sugar, companies should make readily available single-portion packaging sizes of 250ml or less for purchase singly or in multipacks by the end of 2015.

The markedly uncritical response from the industry perhaps underlines the unexacting nature of the FSA requirements.

The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) said it was committed to working with government on its health and wellbeing objectives, would consider the FSA's recommendations and "how we can build on our considerable achievements in developing low and no added sugar drinks".

The BSDA added that it was pleased the FSA had recognised the work industry had done and added that it would be "more beneficial" to emphasise the importance of a balanced diet and active lifestyle than set "arbitrary targets".

However, Jill Ardagh, of the BSDA, pointed out that the organisation made no comment about the suggested timeframe the FSA has put in place. She said there was "absolutely no way of telling" if its member companies would be able to comply with the recommendations by the given dates.

Underlining that the recommendations are voluntary, Ardagh suggested it would be a choice for companies whether to go for the 4% reduction on their mainstream products. She pointed out that, with the use of alternative sweeteners, the industry has been able to provide the necessary choices for those seeking lower-calorie options.

"I am sure companies will look at this and take the decisions on whether it is the right thing for their brand," Ardagh told just-drinks. "It's not a quick process to reformulate. It takes quite some time. You've got to maintain the flavour. Once you start changing ingredients you change flavour you change mouth feel and everybody is very keen to give consumers what they want."

Ardagh also stressed the voluntary nature of the guidelines, suggesting it was designed to give the industry "a sense of direction".

Many campaigners would take issue with that assertion. When asked about the merits of the voluntary approach, an FSA spokesperson told just-drinks that this had worked very well in its salt reduction campaign and it generally favoured a voluntary, consensual approach.

"We are committed to the voluntary approach; really it's how we implement all of our recommendations," the spokesperson said. "It's been proven to work especially with our salt campaign, but we'll be monitoring progress to see whether new approaches are needed. If the current process is slow or ineffective, we could consider legislation. But the voluntary approach has been successful in our other campaigns and it's definitely the route we want to stick to."

One of the key facets of the recommendations and the FSA's response to the consultation period is that it has taken into account the technical difficulties food and drinks companies face when reformulating. "It's a very complex issue and it's something we need to be working with industry on to develop solutions. A flexible, voluntary approach is bound to be more beneficial. We're learning about what can and can't be done at the same time as industry are. It's a two-way thing," the FSA spokesperson said.

Mubeen Bhutta, policy manager at the British Heart Foundation, also backed the voluntary approach. "We believe that the voluntary approach could be successful but we believe it's absolutely right that the FSA keep mandatory action on the table," Bhutta said, adding that the FSA had "taken a voluntary, phased approach in recognition of the fact that this [reformulation] isn't easy".

However, Christine Haigh, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, regretted that the changes had not been mandated. "I think we would like to see a tougher stance from the FSA rather than this tip-toeing approach," Haigh said. "We would like to see them lay down the law a bit more. I think it's the case that industry can do a lot more but they won't do it unless it is forced to."

Haigh also suggested industry overplayed some of the technical difficulties in reformulating. "We have seen when industry puts its mind to something it can do it. Otherwise it tends to drag its feet."

One area not included in the recommendations is the marketing of better-for-you products, but this will be addressed when a further consultation is completed. The FSA has proposed that companies increase the proportion of advertising, marketing and promotional budgets allocated to promoting reduced/low fat and/or reduced/low/no sugar options to encourage consumers to switch to these products.

The FSA said its draft recommendation on the promotion of healthier products would "be finalised subject to comments received". Industry representatives will be hoping the Agency proves equally prepared to listen to its concerns in this area as it appears to have been on reformulation.