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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 11 June 2009


Inquiry into Obesity

Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association

11 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mrs Michelle O’Neill (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Thomas Buchanan 
Dr Kieran Deeny 
Mr Alex Easton 
Mrs Carmel Hanna 
Mr John McCallister


Mr Michael Bell, Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs O’Neill):

Our first evidence session is with the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association. Members have copies of the submissions from the Food Standards Agency, Safefood, the Food and Drink Association, as well as a briefing paper from the Assembly Research Services. I welcome Michael Bell, the executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association. He will give a brief presentation, after which members can put questions to him.

Mr Michael Bell (Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association):

I will start by telling the Committee who I am and why I am here. I have been involved in the local food and drink industry for 25 years. I was involved in manufacturing for 12 years and have been representing the industry for some 14 years. I am also a chartered food scientist. After putting Northern Ireland food and drink into context, I will address the questions posed by the Committee.

How important is Northern Ireland food and drink to Northern Ireland? It is the biggest industry, bar none. In 2007, our turnover was £2,724 million — that is, £2·7 billion. We employ 18,400 people directly, a further 25,000 farmers depend on manufacturing, and 10,000 people work in haulage, hygiene, cold storage and other services. Some 20,000 people work in food retailing in the Province. In total, approximately 80,000 jobs are dependent on the agrifood sector in Northern Ireland, making it far and away the biggest part of the economy. Of the £2·7 billion turnover, 65% is exported, of which 41% goes to GB and the rest to the Republic of Ireland or the EU.

That is the good news. The not-so-good news is that the industry’s profit margin is, at 2·8%, very low. I am happy to give the Committee copies of the statistics. All the statistics that I quote come from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and they can be accessed from its website.

To underline the importance of the industry, 19% of total manufacturing sales in Northern Ireland come from food and drink. It accounts for 15·8% of external sales and approximately 24% of all manufacturing employment. One of my member companies employs more people than Shorts. It tends to be overlooked because it has always been there as a background industry. However, I want to stress that it is extremely significant. The industry is a big supplier to GB.

What is the role of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association in the industry? Our vision is of a sustainable, strong, growing cluster of local quality food and drink enterprises. The association will build an internationally competitive industry that will create wealth for our society stakeholders.

If I have read the Committee material correctly, the obesity agenda is the focus for today, and the association engages with that agenda in several ways. Our members are increasingly engaged in providing nutritional labelling on packaging. Virtually all our members’ products at the retail channel display either the Food Standards Agency (FSA) traffic-light system or the guideline daily amount (GDA) system. To date, that is less developed at the food service channel. However, the association is active at the local food service channel through its subsidiary company, Taste of Ulster; I brought some materials for the Committee on that.

Members of the FSA and I sit on a food subgroup of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The subgroup is preparing a paper on obesity for the Minister, and that is due in early 2010. Our members are also engaged in the reformulation of products in an attempt to reduce sugar, fat and salt as per FSA and Westminster guidelines.

However, having said that the association is engaged in those activities, I must make one or two things clear. No one has more of a vested interest in healthy, happy consumers who live for a long time and eat many of our members’ products than the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association. The Government appear to have missed that point, so we have been consistently making it to them. There are no bigger stakeholders in this matter than our members and our industry. Without healthy consumers, we would have no industry.

The complexity of the issue is worth mentioning. There is a shared responsibility for the obesity agenda, which is complex and multifaceted, and a co-ordinated approach is required to prevent and address the problem effectively. Responsibility for addressing the problem must be shared by Government, sectors, professions, communities and individuals, and, in order to get anywhere, we need integration and harmonisation among those stakeholders. Furthermore, a commitment to taking action based on evidence rather than opinion is vital in making progress.

My final two points are important. First, in light of the economic position in which we find ourselves, work on the obesity agenda must achieve the maximum impact and outcomes for the minimum cost; we must achieve value for money. Secondly, local needs must be addressed.

I was struck by a statement from our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, in which a Minister said that, although Scotland produces some of the best food and drink in the world, it has the worst diet and health. I do not agree with the first part of that comment, but I am struck by the fact that the Government there are trying to address both matters simultaneously.

I have more material that should be useful to the Committee, so, if you are happy, I will download some of it for you. I am happy to answer questions.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer, stated that the core issue is that only 6% of people understand the risks of being overweight. Obesity is seen as a vanity rather than a health issue, and we must change that mindset.

In late 2008, the Cabinet Office, to which the association gave evidence, published a paper on the food industry, ‘Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21 st Century’, which states:

“The Government’s vision for the food system is one that is more sustainable — economically, socially and environmentally. The future strategic policy objectives for food should be to secure: fair prices, choice, access to food and food security through open and competitive markets; continuous improvement in the safety of food; a further transition to healthier diets; and a more environmentally sustainable food chain.”

Our industry believes that Northern Ireland is uniquely situated to make great strides on the environmental agenda and, indeed, on the health agenda. However, we need commitment from the Assembly.

There is a presumption that much of the obesity agenda can be addressed by the food and drink industry in isolation from other stakeholders. That ignores the energy output agenda. To illustrate the energy output agenda, I will quote some statistics from ‘The Times’:

“On average British children spend five hours and 18 minutes watching television, playing computer games or online each day. The total of 2,000 hours a year compares with 900 hours in class and 1,270 hours with their parents.”

The elephant in the room is that children are becoming incredibly sedentary. I am happy to pause there. As I said, I have a significant amount of material on which to draw.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you, Michael. I neglected to apologise at the start of the meeting for having to rearrange your visit to the Committee; you were due to come along three weeks ago.

I will pick up on a few points. You said that the association’s members are actively engaged in the labelling system, whether traffic light or GDA levels. Are all your members involved in that?

Mr Bell:

To answer that question, it must be understood how food is distributed from our members to the public. Approximately 60% of the food goes through food retail — that is, the shops that we all use. An estimated 40% is distributed through food service — restaurants — which do not have a point-of-sale, nutritional-labelling system. Therefore, 40% of the food distributed by our members through that channel is not labelled, because the portion size is beyond the manufacturers’ control. It is supplied to a restaurant as an intermediate and is portioned as that establishment sees fit.

In respect of food retail, the answer varies. Manufacturers may sell goods bearing their own label, in which case they have complete control of labelling, and, as required by law, that virtually always carries nutritional information. Beyond that, those manufacturers are moving towards GDA or FSA-style labelling. However, a significant proportion is sold as retailer-own product by major supermarkets under their own label. In that case, the supermarkets, not the manufacturers, control how the labelling is presented. I hope that that is clear.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Yes, that is fair enough.

Mr Bell:

There are different channels. My members can control some matters, but there are quite a few that they cannot.

The Deputy Chairperson:

You stated that the public presumed that obesity can be tackled by the food and drink industry alone. The Committee recognised early in the inquiry that that is not the case and that tackling obesity is also about people becoming active. The relationship between consuming too many calories and weight gain is accepted, but there is less recognition of the link between alcohol intake and calories. Is the drinks industry doing anything to raise awareness of that issue?

Mr Bell:

I cannot represent the drinks industry per se. My association does not have alcoholic drinks firms as members; they are represented by a separate organisation. However, I can comment that alcohol is a significant calorific contributor in, and rising component of, the diet. In response to the FSA draft plan that is out to consultation, my association has stated that it is illogical for the FSA to discuss sugar, fat, salt and calories but make no mention whatsoever of alcohol or of fibre, which remains critical to the debate because fibre has a dramatic affect on how much sugar, fat and salt is absorbed and retained.

Mr McCallister:

I register an interest. I am a shareholder in a milk-processing company, which may be a member of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association.

Some of the evidence that the Committee has received suggests that calorie intake has not increased dramatically over the past 20 years in comparison with weight gain in the population. Therefore, the Committee accepts that a sedentary lifestyle plays a key role in obesity, which leaves just about everybody with a part to play. Evidence suggests that the FSA tends to target sugars, fats and salt for food labelling. Although it is fine to reduce those ingredients in some products, how can people be encouraged to eat a balanced diet, bearing in mind that we need a certain amount of everything for a balanced diet? Does the food industry have a problem with the FSA’s approach to food, especially to salt?

Mr Bell:

The science of nutrition is young and evolving. In my working life, nutritional messages have been stated, withdrawn a few years later and a different position adopted. That has turned the public off new nutritional messages.

The FSA and the Government are committed to their 6 g a day of salt. As a scientist, however, it is wrong to say that 6 g of salt a day is the right amount for everyone. Body mass, diet and metabolism rate all have an effect, as does whether one burns 2,000 calories or 4,000 calories a day. However, the message that society in general needs to reduce its salt intake is correct, and the Government chose to use that mechanic to address the issue.

The problem that association members and I have is best illustrated by a specific incident. In 1987, when I was technical director of a large and well-known Belfast bakery that has since ceased trading — the brand name lives on, so I will not name it — we were asked by the Government, in the original Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) report, to reduce salt in the product. The industry dropped salt from 2·2% to approximately 1·8% in finished products, and sales immediately nosedived.

At the same time, the Government were telling people to eat more bread, particularly wholemeal bread to increase fibre intake. Salt plays a major part in making wholemeal bread palatable, because it is quite insipid without salt. As a result of sales nosediving, the industry returned to the previous salt levels.

Furthermore, trying to adjust the formulation of individual products, apart from the accusation of nannyism from the state, flies in the face of what our European colleagues are doing. Every chef in the land will talk about Parma ham or prosciutto, and hold them up as super-products and include them in their dishes. They contain more than 4% salt, which is twice as salty as any product in our market. Therefore, we are not standing back and considering balanced diet and exercise. Instead, we are focusing on reformulating all the food in the supermarkets and thinking that that will address the issue. It might, but probably not in my lifetime.

Evidence for that comes from what has been learned about smoking. I do not know whether there are any smokers in the room who read what is printed on cigarette packets — before they are taken out of public view in shops, which is the next Government proposal. To print on a product, in huge black letters, that it will kill you had minimal effect on particular social groups. In fact, consumption is still increasing. That tells me that the public are beginning to become immune to messages, and the principle that the public’s behaviour will be changed by putting ever more information on the product is flawed.

Mr McCallister:

We want to give people the message that their diet should be balanced and contain a little bit of everything. Someone who eats a lot of Parma ham would have an enormous salt intake, but no one would suggest that a diet should consist entirely of Parma ham. I sometimes worry that, if the FSA targets one aspect of the diet, it might get a result for the overall population but not the desired balance.

Mr Bell:

The association expressed its concerns about that to the FSA. I encourage the Committee to read the London Department of Health’s short paper, ‘Economic Costs of Obesity and the Case for Government Intervention’. In that article, Barry McCormick logically argues that emphasis needs to be put on children. Once poor eating patterns have been learned, they are extremely difficult to correct. It is difficult to correct the poor life skills education that some youngsters have received. My 25-year-old niece now has perfect teeth because she was encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables and screened from having too much sugar.

Mr Easton:

I agree with your suggestion that an overall approach should be taken. My stepdaughter spends all her time on a computer, which does my head in. She goes out with her friends but does not do any exercise, and that is probably not good for her longer-term health. You mentioned the effect that alcohol can have on weight, which I had not thought about. Indeed, it might be helpful if we got more information about how alcohol affects weight.

Many people are so set in their ways that they may be incapable of changing their diets. I have been honest enough to say that, although I know about the traffic-light system, I go into the supermarket and buy anything that looks good. I am lucky that I am skinny, but one does not know what is going on inside the body; a heart attack, for example, may be just down the road.

We talk about a multi-agency and multifaceted approach, but I get the impression that people will not listen unless they are forced to cut down on the fat, sugar and salt in their diets. Regardless of the traffic-light system, the majority of people will buy a product unless there has been a major health scare about it. We have an awful lot of work to do to change attitudes. I do not know how we will to do that, because we have given so many different messages.

You mentioned that there was a reduction in the sale of bread that had been made healthier. Would serious cuts in the amounts of fat, sugar and salt in foods have drastic effects on food companies, leading to job losses, and so on?

Mr Bell:

I am afraid that the answer to that question is very complex. I represent about 140 companies that produce a combined total of some 2,000 products. Every one of those products is different and has a different level of sugar, fat, salt, some that is added and some that is not added. For example, butter is 80% fat, and spring water is 0% fat. However, water is toxic in overdose. Last year, a radio station in California ran a competition entitled “hold your wee for a Wii”. A lady died after drinking five gallons of water in an attempt to win a Nintendo Wii.

Everything is toxic if taken to an extreme. The central theme is balance. Correcting the ingredients of the members of the association’s products is like squeezing a balloon. If the balloon is constricted so that, in the retail channel, one can buy only products that are low in sugar, fat, salt and, therefore, somewhat bland, people will eat more carry-outs or make alternative meals at home, adding more salt.

A behavioural pattern in Northern Ireland that amazes me is that people season food with salt and pepper before they taste it. I have observed that everywhere. Many carry-out and restaurant meals have a sugar, fat and salt loading that is worse than anything from a supermarket.

I am sorry that that has not answered your question directly, but it would take a long time to unpack the issue because it would involve examining the issue sector by sector. The recession has had a significant effect on food-purchasing patterns and consumer behaviour. Although the overall turnover in the industry is significantly recession-proof, I will give one statistic to illustrate the point. Butter sales, year on year, have risen by 15%; for a while, the industry scratched its head and wondered why butter sales would increase during a recession. The answer is that people are making their own sandwiches at home. People who make their own sandwiches invariably use more butter than is used in commercially made sandwiches, which have a nutritional declaration that manufacturers are committed to meet and not exceed.

Dr Deeny:

You mentioned schools earlier; does your association have any input in schools? It is important not only to have input and output exercises but to have an input into what schoolchildren eat and drink — soft drinks, for example. A few years ago, I had an issue with my kids because they were drinking Coke until it was coming out their ears.

Does your association have a responsibility to draw the dangers of some of those foods to people’s attention, or do you represent only the businesses that produce them? I hope that I have picked you up incorrectly, but it concerns me that you mentioned the advertising of cigarettes and said that, although there are warnings on the packets, they are more or less dismissed. That is not grounds for saying that warnings should not be given. Advertising has a powerful influence on what people eat. Does your association not have a responsibility to ensure that advertising is responsible and informative?

Mr Bell:

The answer to your last question is yes. Advertising by local food and drink manufacturers is relatively low-key and small-scale. That goes with the size of the industry. You are probably referring to major multinational companies with significant advertising capacity. Those multinationals can speak for themselves, and there are such companies based in the Province. It is laudable that soft drinks companies associate their products with calorie burn, as are the resources that they have put into promoting calorie burn and balanced diets.

Some of the approaches that have been taken involve trying to win over the public by negative rather than positive messaging. The FSA used images of sick bags and slugs to try to change consumer behaviour at various points in the food industry. That imagery turns people off instead of encouraging them to carry the message forward.

The obesity epidemic affecting the next generation will be won and lost in schools. It is an epidemic, and some of the worst statistics in the world come from these islands. I am struck by an experiment on snacking that a Welsh set of schools has been conducting for over 20 years. Fruit, vegetables and water were provided to a set of schools, and the subjects were tracked into their early adult life. The results showed a significant difference between them and a controlled population. That provides strong evidence that more intervention must be made at school level.

Dr Deeny:

Where does your organisation stand on the point that someone must keep a hold on businesses that are in the food industry only to make money? John referred to foods that have very high levels of saturated fats, salt and sugar. Someone must hold the industry to account so that the place is not coming down with foods that kids and adults see advertised on television and which will, in the long term, affect their health.

Mr Bell:

The paper to which I referred earlier mentions products that have a downside. That applies to almost everything that contains alcohol. If any product that is sold in an off-licence is taken to excess, it will take a male past the recommended maximum of 21 units of alcohol in a week. Alcohol has a significant downside, and it could have a further downside because it could lead to health problems, antisocial behaviour, and so on. The same argument can be made on tobacco. The sale of tobacco brings an economic advantage to the Government, and there is a list of downsides to it. The view has been taken that the downsides outweigh the upsides.

The consumer’s right to choose food must be preserved, because very few products can definitively be said to be damaging. I have been challenged previously by people who have said that our members produce food that is unhealthy or bad. Not one of our members produces a bad food product. There are bad diets and bad consumption patterns, where people eat a particular product to excess, and it is not part of a balanced diet, but our members can provide only the information and the best-quality product possible. The dairy sector, for example, is a significant and high-quality industry, but to eat nothing but butter as a significant part of one’s diet for a significant amount of time would be damaging.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That brings the session to a close. Michael, I thank you for attending; it has been very helpful to the Committee.

Mr Bell:

Thank you. I shall leave some books for members, and I hope that you will visit some of the local Taste of Ulster establishments and sample the local food.

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