Noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease account for two-thirds of all deaths in Switzerland. The risk factors for developing these diseases are manifold, and include consumption of foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. By means of industry agreements, the private sector can play an important role in reducing excessive consumption and thus contribute to prevention efforts.
In Switzerland, initiatives have been launched with manufacturers to combat the consumption of these unhealthy foodstuffs. In 2015, ten food companies committed to reducing the sugar content in yogurts and breakfast cereals in the so-called Milan Declaration.
The Success of the Milan Declaration
This has been very successful: The targets were exceeded within three years. By 2018, the sugar content of yogurts had been reduced by 3.5 percent (instead of the targeted 2.5 percent) and of cereals by 13 percent (instead of 10 percent). Following this successful first phase, the parties involved intend to continue their commitment until 2024, aiming for a further 10 percent and 15 percent reduction in sugar content in yogurt and cereals, respectively.
According to the Swiss federal government, the declaration will be extended to sugar and dairy drinks as well as quark. The specific targets will be announced in the coming weeks.
Effective, Fast, and Flexible Industry Agreements
The example illustrates the effective approach of voluntary industry agreements: The intended targets were exceeded and the scope of food products affected was expanded. The close relationships between companies and their customers provide powerful leverage when it comes to positively impacting public health. Companies know best which new products are successful and which recipes can be changed without losing appeal. To be effective, any measures must take customer preferences into account.
Another point is that agreements of this sort guarantee rapid implementation ‒ faster than if the state were to regulate the entire sector. This allows early adopters to pool their efforts and motivate others to gradually join them. Hesitant actors are persuaded to participate without external coercion.
The formulated goals of the Milan Declaration are clearly defined. However, companies have leeway when it comes to achieving them: adapting existing recipes, introducing healthier products or withdrawing certain products. Coordinated action among signatories to the declaration also reduces the risk of losing customers in the event of recipe changes, as competitors adopt similar approaches.
All parties involved thus benefit from industry agreements: The companies make their efforts visible to their consumers and at the same time prove to investors and regulators that the voluntary commitments are effective and credible. The state, in turn, avoids cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.
Salt in the Works
Still, there are stumbling blocks to industry agreements. Last December, the Sonntagszeitung newspaper reported that an agreement between the federal government and the industry to reduce the salt content in certain foods had failed. As a result, this goal could not be included in the Milan Declaration.
The food industry feared lost sales and wanted the option of compensating for the reduction in salt content with flavor substitutes. However, the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) rejected this approach, arguing that consumers would have to get used to a less salty taste.
Far more problematic, however, was the fact that the administration then threatened to take regulatory action, taking its cue from practices abroad, according to a BLV spokeswoman quoted in the Sonntagszeitung.
Although the failure of negotiations on salt content is regrettable, the industry solution approach should not be fundamentally challenged. That would mean abandoning a method that can effectively and efficiently reduce the consumption of unhealthy food.
It is to be hoped that the negotiating parties will resume discussions and that a similar solution can be found for salty foods as for sweetened ones. The Milan Declaration shows that industry agreements are a proven public health tool that can benefit everyone: consumers, the industry, and the government.