High-street health alliance needs to show its muscle

A code of conduct signed by firms including Costa and McDonalds is welcome – but worryingly vague. By Nick Hughes.

The foodservice sector is not known for its willingness to put competitive instincts aside and collaborate for the greater good. For this reason alone, the announcement that 10 of the UK’s best-known high-street food brands have launched a new code of practice on health and wellness is to be welcomed.

Just how effective the new code will be in shifting consumption habits is far less clear-cut. Signatories including Costa, McDonald’s, Greggs and Wetherspoon have made a number of commitments that range from offering healthier children’s products to providing clear nutritional information.

But in the absence of clear, measurable goals – save for an aim to achieve Public Health England’s sugar reduction target of 20% by 2020 – and with no plans to publish updates on progress against the code, the alliance of members will need to work hard to shift the impression that this is predominantly a PR-driven offensive in a bid to counter criticism of the sector for its perceived lack of action in tackling obesity.

The code has been drawn up with input from businesses from across the out-of-home sector. A spokesperson for the alliance says it has been formed independently, although a clue as to its likely origin lies in the fact that the majority of members also attended stakeholder meetings run by PHE in 2016 and 2017 to discuss sugar reformulation.

Its content has been reviewed by the British Nutrition Foundation, which will also advise the alliance on its progress against the commitments. However, Judy Buttriss, the director general of the BNF, has confirmed to Footprint that it will not be reporting publicly on behalf of the alliance at key milestones. This means the only measurable target is the 20% reduction in sugar across nine key food categories, which the government has already implied will become legally binding if businesses fail to achieve the target voluntarily.

Elsewhere, commitments feel rather familiar, vague, lacking in real ambition or a combination of all three.

A pledge to adhere to existing codes of practice on advertising that the industry itself helped draw up can hardly be seen as stretching when campaigners say current rules need to go much further.

A plan to use “nudge” tactics to encourage customers to make healthier choices was getting politicians and businesses excited all the way back in 2010 when David Cameron took office. And a commitment to provide clear, easy-to-understand and readily available nutritional information was a key plank of the government’s Responsibility Deal six years ago when businesses promised to provide calorie information in out-of-home settings.

The spokesperson acknowledged the need to look at other nutrients of concern including salt and saturated fat, as well as looking at positive nutritional attributes such as protein, fibre and calcium. But they added that the transparency of the nutritional information will depend on each individual company. Reading between the lines, anyone looking for a consistent approach to providing out-of-home nutritional information is likely to be disappointed.

Alliance members say their ambition is to support the whole out-of-home sector to change its attitude to food and drink development, building on the long experience of the founder member brands. And if they really can manage to unite a fragmented foodservice sector behind a set of principles, however broad, they will have achieved much. Yet the spokesperson is unable to shed any light on how they plan to support non-founder members to do this.

There’s no doubt that members themselves are doing pockets of good work. The average McDonald’s children’s meal sold in 2016 contained 21.2% less salt, 10.7% less saturated fat and 16.9% less sugar compared with the average Happy Meal sold in 2006. Other popular dishes, such as Whitbread’s Brewers Fayre vanilla ice cream and Starbucks Frappuccinos, have also had their sugar levels slashed.

But it would take a charitable pundit to conclude that the new code of practice builds significantly on this work. In its current guise, the code feels like a set of minimum requirements for businesses that wish to acknowledge the health agenda as part of business as usual’ rather than a transformative approach to how food is served and eaten in the out-of-home environment.

At this point it feels apposite to remember the comment made last October by the Tesco policy adviser Tim Smith at the Food Foundation’s Vegetable Summit, where a host of major brands committed to specific, measurable targets to increase consumption of vegetables. “What gets measured gets done,” said Smith, pointedly.

The code of practice may yet improve and alliance members are to be applauded for their show of intent. But in the absence of measurable targets and a clear set of outcomes it’s unlikely to mark the moment when foodservice helped turn back the obesity tide.

 

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