Nutrition groups 'need to unite'

Tania Mason

Demands are growing for a more cohesive voluntary sector voice on dietary health issues.

Paul Lincoln, chief executive of the National Heart Forum, an alliance of more than 40 heart health organisations, said the dozens of charities that have a stake in the nutrition debate need to be better co-ordinated if they are to be as successful in addressing the obesity crisis as anti-smoking groups have been at tackling smoking.

Lincoln claims his view is shared by "everyone except the food industry", including the investment community.

Lincoln likened the nutritional health debate - "the next big public health priority after smoking" - to a David and Goliath battle.

"The food marketing industry is very effective and has huge resources," he said. "Our ability to challenge its excesses needs to be strengthened."

Groups such as Sustain and the Food Commission do a "fantastic job", he said, but are very poorly resourced. He suggested that bigger, richer charities should give money to them.

A stronger voice from the voluntary sector would be a great help to the Government in trying to get food companies to be more responsible, Lincoln said. "It would give them legitimacy for action and a mandate for change," he added.

Rachel Crossley, director of investor responsibility at Insight Investment, part of HBOS, said that the likes of Sustain, the Food Commission, Which? and the National Consumer Council were all quite effective on food issues.

But she observed that they "did not seem as organised and co-ordinated as other voluntary groups that campaign on other issues".

Environmental organisations in particular have been good at "plotting and planning and strategising" to determine which groups would focus on which issues in order to maximise their resources and avoid duplication.

"But I don't see any evidence of that in the dietary health arena," she said.

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator at Sustain, said the main problem was lack of money and suggested the Government should channel cash for healthy food advertising through groups such as Sustain in the same way it funded the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK to run anti-smoking campaigns.

It would also help if the big heart and cancer charities supported groups such as Sustain in the same way they had supported Ash, she said.

But real change in the nation's health would never come unless the Government "gets some backbone", she added. "Even when the sector does co-ordinate, as 161 organisations have done over the Children's Food Bill, we still can't make the Government quake in its boots in the same way Tesco can," Longfield said.

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