The health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that he will consider capping the amount of sugar in foods aimed at children if the industry “doesn’t get its house in order”.
His comments came after a call from Labour for fresh legislation which could limit the amount of sugar in foods popular with children such as cereals and drinks.
Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, said that voluntary agreements with the food industry were not working and that action must be taken to stop Britain storing up “huge problems” for the future.
Labour is launching a consultation into a new cap on the maximum permitted levels of fat, sugar and salt in children’s foods. That could include a 30 per cent cap on the amount of sugar contained in cereals. A cap at that level would rule out certain cereals, such as Frosties, which was found by the Which? consumer group to contain 37 per cent sugar.
In response, Mr Hunt said that the government is prepared to consider legislation as “we have to solve this problem”. He said: “My message to the supermarkets and the food manufacturers is that we will of course consider legislation, but we want to give you a chance to put your house in order and make sure that we’re not shovelling sugar down the throats of young children.”
Mr Burnham said: “Like all parents, I have bought products like cereals and fruit drinks, marketed as more healthy, that contained higher sugar levels than expected. I don’t think that any parent would be comfortable with their child eating something that is 40 per cent sugar.
“The government has failed to come up with a convincing plan to tackle this challenge. It is clear that the current voluntary approach is not working. We need to open our minds to new approaches in tackling child obesity.
“Labour wants to lead this debate. That is why we are asking the public and experts if new limits for sugar, fats and salts would be the right approach.”
Labour cited a report by the consumer group, Which?, which last year found high sugar levels in 32 out of the 50 breakfast cereals it examined. Kellogg’s Frosties contained the highest amount of sugar, with 37g per 100g.
But Mr Burnham denied that he wanted to ban sugary foods or cereals, or that he wanted to get rid of Frosties. Instead, he said that sugar levels needed to be kept at a healthy level, and said the matter was out to consultation.
Gabriel Scally, a former regional director of public health for the south west at the department of health, welcomed the proposals, adding: “The continued rise in childhood obesity is an urgent call to action and must not be ignored.
“I applaud the Labour Party for tackling the issue of the foodstuffs filling our children with the empty calories that fuel obesity. Helping parents protect and promote the future health of our children is exactly what we need to be doing.”
The Department of Health has also said that it wants to continue pushing for voluntary regulation.
A spokesman said: “By working with industry through the responsibility deal we have helped to reduce fat, sugar and salt in foods.
“There is now less salt in the food we buy, companies are cutting and capping calories and artificial trans fats are being widely taken out of food.
“We are working to reduce the amount of salt in food further, cut saturated fat consumption and we are exploring how to promote healthier food choices more widely. We also want more businesses making pledges so we get bigger results.”