The industry has the power and the passion for getting to grips with obesity

Health and wellbeing is a big priority for FDF and it’s right that we are fully engaged on that issue.

When I took the FDF gig – leading the organisation which represents the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, I thought I would spend my time talking about exports, skills, productivity, and sustainability.  In fact, for the last three months, I have talked almost exclusively about obesity.  In fact probably 90% of that conversation has been focused on the role in obesity played by one nutrient:  sugar.

Health and wellbeing IS a big priority for FDF. It’s right that we should be fully engaged on that issue.  Obesity is a significant issue, particularly for certain age and demographic groups.  The food and drink industry has to be at the heart of the solution to that problem; and we will be.

Whatever your perspective on the sugar debate, as I reflect from the eye of the storm, I believe there are some troubling broader themes that should be explored.

First, the characterisation – caricaturing would be more accurate – of “business” as being shadowy ‘Bond villain’ figures, driven by greed to cause ill health in our children, is grotesque and insulting.  I work daily with the leaders of the UK’s food and drink businesses.  They are to a man and woman highly impressive, yet also quite normal people, usually parents, always consumers, who share the same ethical and moral compass as do the health campaigners.

It is well known that I am a liberal (and a Liberal) but I am an unashamed supporter of capitalism.  The ‘profit motive’ is now portrayed as some kind of shameful badge of bad faith.  I don’t think people who want their businesses to continue to employ people, to continue to contribute to the economy and to continue to reward those who have invested in their success should be pilloried for that belief.  I think they should be celebrated!

Moreover, why is it that in any debate involving business that anything we say is dismissed by the media (and too often politicians) as “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” while anything the health campaigners say is treated as impartial, intrinsically well meaning, factual and beyond challenge?  Of course business is not impartial; but neither are those whose only perspective is the success of the campaigns to which they dedicate themselves; or, for that matter, those celebrities who have grown rich on the back of the food industry and then choose to attack it.

The food industry’s appetite (no pun intended) to tackle obesity is genuine.  Its leaders care about kids getting fat and they care about the hard-won reputations of their business.  Yes they care about their bottom line too but it’s the ability to keep all those plates spinning that mark these people out as exceptional.

My old boss and friend Paul Walsh, CEO of Diageo, bowed to no-one in his commercial drive for results.  But Paul had an unfailing instinct for the importance of reputation and regarded it as a precious asset that had continuously to be invested in if it were to survive and prosper.

If our critics could open their thinking and see that industry has not only the power but also the passion for getting to grips with obesity then who knows what we could achieve?