HC 1048-III Health CommitteeWritten evidence from the British Retail Consortium (PH 85)

1.0 Introduction

1.1 The British Retail Consortium (BRC) is the trade association of the retail sector and is the authoritative voice of the industry to policy makers and to the media. The BRC brings together the whole range of retailers across the UK, from independents to large multiples and department stores, selling a wide selection of products through centre of town, out of town, rural and online stores.

1.2 Our membership includes all the major food retailers, who between them account for over 90% of the UK’s grocery sales.

1.3 The BRC and its members have worked closely with Government and stakeholders throughout the UK to help consumers to make healthier choices and live healthier lives. BRC members have led the food industry in terms of clear labelling, reformulation and offering healthier alternatives and dedicated healthy ranges. Similarly in alcohol, BRC members were the first to rollout the Department of Health’s (DH) label promoting unit awareness on their own brand products as well as supporting the Drinkaware Trust and the creation of Community Alcohol Partnerships (CAPs). BRC members have given full support to the DH Responsibility Deal on public health as well as working closely with colleagues in Scotland on their alcohol industry partnership and the development of their obesity route map.

1.4 Our members also have a strong interest in the Health Protection Agency (HPA). Its role in public health incidents is important to all food businesses; we also worked closely with the Agency in preparation for the threats from pandemic flu.

1.5 We have restricted our comments to those issues which affect retail businesses, which are our relationship with Government to deliver public health policy and the role of the HPA.

2.0 The Public Health Role of the Secretary of State

2.1 We believe public health should be a key role for the Secretary of State. This ensures both it receives sufficient recognition of importance within DH and that there is engagement with stakeholders, such as retailers, to deliver public health policy.

2.2 We have been impressed by the current Secretary of State’s approach to public health. He made it clear that public health was a key priority for the Department and demonstrated that in his leadership of the Responsibility Deal. By taking such a prominent role in the development of the Deal, the Secretary of State has signalled its importance to Government policy and ensured maximum participation from industry partners.

2.3 We also believe the decision to incorporate nutrition policy within DH was correct. This should ensure it is fully integrated into public health policy as a whole and that there is co-ordination across other Government departments.

3.0 Retail Engagement on Public Health

3.1 Retailers have been very active in key areas of public health for many years. They have provided customers with reformulated products, reducing fats, sugars and salts, they have provided clear nutrition and alcohol labelling, raised awareness of issues with consumers through a number of communication methods and promoted healthier choices in store. This ensures we are all able to enjoy a healthy, balanced, affordable diet.

3.2 All of the work on public health has been shared with the Government, demonstrating the value of responsible companies working with consumers and the market to deliver key goals. The partnership with Government has been demonstrated through progress in salt reduction plans and the commitment to all the key pledges in the Responsibility Deal.

3.3 We understand the reasoning behind increasing local input and focus on public health initiatives but this could present challenges to businesses, such as retailers, that operate at a UK level.

3.4 Although retailers are extremely active in the community through their individual stores, many of their initiatives in public health are co-ordinated at a national level. As UK businesses they make changes to products and labelling at a national level and, similarly they run campaigns such as promotions and information on healthy menus and cooking from scratch across all their stores.

3.5 Whilst retailers have operated a number of initiatives at a local level, including bringing working with consumers in store to improve nutrition understanding and promoting key public health themes with their colleagues, families and communities, their core business, including promotions and campaigns are run nationally. Our preference would be national agreement on the key priorities in public health, allowing for some variation in delivery at the local level.

4.0 The Abolition of the Health Protection Agency

4.1 We have two concerns regarding the proposal to include the functions of the HPA within DH. The first is retaining the resource and experience currently within the HPA. It performs a crucial role in terms of monitoring potential risks and reacting to emerging issues in both informing businesses and reinforcing consumer confidence. The HPA and its predecessors have established a strong reputation with businesses and earned recognition around the world and we would caution against any changes that could damage that.

4.2 The second point is partly linked to the first, which is the benefit of independence from central government. Similarly to the Food Standards Agency, this gives the HPA enhanced credibility which is important in conveying messages to consumers.

4.3 Whatever changes are made to the HPA we would reinforce the need to ensure good co-ordination with other organisations such as the FSA; the recent problems with E.Coli in Germany have highlighted how public health issues can span several organisations and countries.

June 2011

Prepared 28th November 2011