THE pandemic must be a “wake up call” to deal with Scotland’s poor diet say regulators who warn that more people die every year from obesity-related diseases than in the whole of the Covid crisis.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) chief executive Geoff Ogle said restrictions such as bans on junk food deals in supermarkets or requiring calorie labelling on restaurant menus would actually benefit hospitality and retail sectors in the long run by reducing sickness among their own staff.

Speaking as the organisation launched its new five-year strategy Mr Ogle said there had been little progress in turning the tide on Scotland’s unhealthy diet over the past 17 years, adding that the consequences had been laid bare by the links between obesity and an increased risk of death from Covid.

He said: “There is no doubt that the change in Scotland’s diet has to be achieved and Covid is perhaps the wake-up call that we need.

“And if we don’t change Scotland’s diet now, when are we ever going to do it?”

HeraldScotland: Regulators want an end to multibuy price promotions on junk food high in saturated fat, sugar or saltRegulators want an end to multibuy price promotions on junk food high in saturated fat, sugar or salt

READ MORE: Proposed junk food restrictions 'paused' by Scottish Government 

FSS has been pushing since 2019 for an overhaul of the out-of-home food sector, which would cover takeaways, cinemas, shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants, and seek to put a stop to sales of fattening supersize portions or buy-one-get-one-free promotions on items such as crisps or confectionery.

Mr Ogle conceded that the hospitality industry had been “hit really hard by Covid”, but insisted such regulations would boost the economy as well as public health.

“Part of the risk or mistake we could make is looking at the need to improve diet solely as a health issue,” said Mr Ogle.

“If you look at it as a health issue we can say ‘we’ll keep spending money to deal with the consequences of poor diet instead of focusing on prevention ’.

"Well, what’s going to happen? You’re going to have increasing health spend and less money for other stuff.

READ MORE: Glasgow Covid hospital patients double amid 'Indian variant' outbreak

“If you look at it in terms of an economic and productivity issue as well, with two-thirds of the population overweight and obese you’re actually going to end up with a less productive economy because of all the consequences that come from poor diet.

“The issue for industry is not to see this as just a health issue but also to see it as an economic one, in which they also have an important role to play in terms of the things we want to do around out-of-home calorie labelling to enable consumers to make their best choices.

“If we’re in a position where consumers are able to have the information to make healthy choices and look at menus and see what the calorie count is, that improves their diet but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s detrimental to hospitality.

“It might mean that some of their high fat, salt and sugar options go because they’re less popular – but that’s a good thing.

"But it doesn’t follow that healthier diets, more transparency, and more information for consumers leads to a detriment in terms of the economic consequences for certain sectors.

“Retail are employers too. If they have a number of staff who are off sick because they’re overweight, that has an economic impact on them.

"So I think the mistake is solely to view this as a health issue, when actually, increasingly, it’s becoming an economic one as well.”

HeraldScotland:

David Gally, chief scientific advisor to the FSS, added: “Long-term unhealthy diets are a killer – Scotland has the highest rates of obesity-related mortality in Europe.

“We lose more people to these diseases every year than we have lost to Covid in the whole of the pandemic.”

Writing in the foreword to today’s report, FSS chair Ross Finnie said Scots “continue to buy too much discretionary food and drinks which tend to be both heavily promoted and less healthy”, increasing the risks of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes which Covid “has brought into focus”.

READ MORE: The supermarkets most likely to push junk food deals online

The agency also wants to build on surveillance technology built up during the pandemic, such as wastewater monitoring, to limit and prevent future outbreaks of food-borne pathogens such as E.coli.

The Scottish Government paused plans to bring forward legislation on junk food price promotions during the pandemic, but public health expert Professor Linda Bauld said “urgent action” is needed.

She said: “These offers are fuelling the nation’s obesity problem by encouraging people to stock up on snacks and sweets.

“It’s vital we tackle this as carrying too much weight is linked with 13 types of cancer.”

However, Luke Tracey, chair of the Glasgow Restaurant Association, said it should not be up to regulators to tell restaurants what dishes they can serve.

He said: “To ask venues to start making smaller portions of food will only be detrimental to each venue as the customer will of course not expect to pay the same price tag. So this would damage sales for businesses.

“I think most hospitality venues already do what they can to ensure healthier options are available to keep their menus diverse and attract a broader customer base.”

HeraldScotland: The hospitality industry would be expected to provide calorie information for diners on its menus The hospitality industry would be expected to provide calorie information for diners on its menus

The Scottish Retail Consortium said its members were broadly supportive of bans on multi-buy deals on crisps, but warned the “devil is in the detail” as products such as lamb or orange juice could be defined as high salt or sugar items, and the policy could curb money-saving offers like “meal deals”.

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, SRC head of policy, said: “We hope to see a practical and flexible approach taken, which would allow exemptions for specific seasonal promotions and the promotion of healthier products within a category.

"We urge ministers to look closely at the facts and bring forward proportional measures based on strong and specific evidence which balance the impact on stretched consumers with the need to tackle obesity.”

ANALYSIS

THE overweight population of the world is the “next pandemic waiting to happen”.

That was the verdict of Tim Lobstein, policy director for the World Obesity Federation in March, when the organisation published an analysis which found that Covid-19 death rates had been 10 times higher in countries where more than half of the adult population is classified as overweight.

“Look at countries like Japan and South Korea where they have very low levels of Covid-19 deaths as well as very low levels of adult obesity,” said Dr Lobstein.

“They have prioritised public health across a range of measures, including population weight, and it has paid off in the pandemic.”

Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organisation, said the correlation between obesity and Covid “is clear and compelling”.

HeraldScotland: Combined deaths in Scotland and England from adiposity (being severely overweight) overtook deaths from smoking in 2014 Combined deaths in Scotland and England from adiposity (being severely overweight) overtook deaths from smoking in 2014

A month earlier, in February, a study led by Glasgow University also found that obesity and excess body fat had overtaken smoking as the leading cause of death among adults aged 45 and older in Scotland and England.

The crossover had first occurred in 2014 and by 2017 around 23 per cent of deaths could be linked to obesity, compared to 19% for smoking. Even then the authors said their findings were “likely to be a slight underestimate”.

In July last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a raft of policies effectively mirroring what Scotland had put on ice only a month before – from a ban on junk food deals to calorie displays on menus.

Then-public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick said the pause was “an opportunity to take stock... of the Covid-19 lockdown, including on people’s diet and healthy weight”.

It remains to be seen whether the revised plan will come back tougher, or watered down.