Time to act on UK food policy as general election looms

UK House of Lords

World Cancer Research Fund is getting increasingly involved in UK policy, ahead of a general election this year. Kate Oldridge-Turner explains what we’re doing – and why.

Kate Oldridge-TurnerThe UK has convened a parliamentary committee to tackle food, diet and obesity. Kate Oldridge-Turner, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, explains how we’ve reiterated to the committee that there is an urgent need to address rising obesity rates, as part of World Cancer Research Fund’s increased involvement in UK policy ahead of a general election.

One of my first tasks on returning from maternity leave in March was supporting our submission to the UK House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee. This an important opportunity for World Cancer Research Fund to highlight the links between diet, food and cancer. It’s also an exciting moment, as although we’ve contributed evidence to committees and answered consultations in the UK before, this submission marks the start of our increased engagement in UK policy development and public affairs.

There have been fits and starts of policy action in the UK to address rising rates of obesity. We raised this in our submission (which will be made publicly available by the Committee in due course) and highlighted the negative impact of delaying restrictions on advertising unhealthy food online and on TV between 05:30am–09:30pm, and multibuy promotions in retail stores.

Challenges from industry

We were also able to draw on all our experience of reviewing policies around the world to identify common issues that affect policy development and implementation (check out our Building Momentum reports). The UK is not unique in encountering industry pressure through legal action and lobbying to derail new regulations, such as Kellogg’s legal challenge (PDF) to promotion restrictions on sugary cereals.

We shared with the House of Lords Committee our assessment of England’s diet-related policies, which highlight weaknesses in the design of marketing and advertising restrictions, as well as poor provisions for healthy food and drink in and around schools. However, we know that an important missing part of the jigsaw is understanding the status of implementation of these policies and whether they are delivering what they set out to do.

Health risks of ultra-processed food not yet clear

We also have new and emerging areas of diet and nutrition policy to consider in the UK and elsewhere. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and the health risks of eating them have captured public attention. While I was on maternity leave, one would believe from media reporting that the impact of UPFs on health was clear cut. However, the media chatter doesn’t unpick the details and often unhelpfully pitches different ways of categorising foods – such as the NOVA system and the Nutrient Profile Model, which are not like for like – against each other. News stories also often fail to recognise the underlying impacts of health inequities and the broader food environment when criticising UPFs. It will be interesting to see what the House of Lords inquiry makes of UPFs and a possible regulatory response – my colleague Kendra Chow has written a blog about this topic.

Looking forward, we are entering an election period in the UK, which means there is an exciting window to contribute to a future government’s health policies. We will increase our engagement with all parliamentarians and candidates to share our key asks so that cancer prevention is higher up the public health agenda.

And we will build on all the brilliant tools and resources we’ve developed through the CO-CREATE project, which wrapped up late last year. CO-CREATE brought together World Cancer Research Fund and 13 other organisations to work with young people to create, inform and disseminate evidence-based policies that help prevent obesity among young people in Europe. Our policy databases, which were developed and enhanced as part of our work with CO-CREATE, are rich sources of information about what policies are being implemented around the world. We’ll continue to share insights from our indexes of nutrition and physical activity policies from 30 European countries, and encourage advocates to use them to push for better-designed policies.

On a personal note, I can’t help but let my experiences as a new mum further fuel my work and passion for healthy environments for all. For instance, I come back to work with a deeper understanding of the challenges around breastfeeding and the poor resources available to parents to support infant feeding. I hope I can channel these difficult experiences in a positive way that can contribute to lasting changes for many.