Meeting of minds at the Footprint summit

There was a real sense of urgency about tackling the public health crisis as industry leaders and academics met at Food Matters Live. By Nick Hughes.

Maybe it was the coffee or the pressure of being literally in the spotlight but, listening to speakers on the first day of Food Matters Live last month, it felt like there was a renewed sense of urgency about the need to tackle the UK’s public health crisis.

Perhaps minds had been focused by the recently published statistics from the OECD that showed Britain to be the most obese nation in western Europe. But from the deputy chief medical officer’s acceptance that the childhood obesity plan was only the start of a long journey, to the shadow health minister’s excoriating attack on the plan’s deficiencies, it seemed the penny had finally dropped in Westminster – failure to tackle the obesity crisis in a meaningful way will very soon bankrupt the NHS.

Embracing this spirit of purpose, Footprint used this year’s Food Matters Live as a forum to convene a wide range of representatives from industry, civil society and academia to ask the question: “What more can foodservice do to improve public health?”

The aim of the Public Health Responsibility Conference (PHRC) is to build on the momentum created by the Public Health Responsibility Deal to produce a five-year roadmap for the out-of-home sector that includes sector-specific commitments and measurable targets that can act as a focal point for businesses’ efforts to improve public health.

The event at Food Matters Live constituted a first step on this path, with discussions feeding into the agenda for a formal launch of the PHRC next year and subsequent annual conferences.

Introducing the event, Footprint Media Group’s head of research and analysis, Amy Fetzer, highlighted the urgency of the public health crisis, noting that 63% of the UK adult population are overweight or obese, while one in five children leave primary school obese.

She said it was both the moral responsibility of foodservice providers and a commercial opportunity for the sector to create an environment where people can eat more healthily out of home.

Fetzer presented nine topics as a starting point for discussions and encouraged participants to comment on whether they lend themselves to workable targets for foodservice that could be adopted by a range of businesses.

  • Calorie, fat, sugar and salt targets are a particularly pertinent subject for the food industry. Public Health England (PHE) is due to publish first-year progress on sugar reduction in March, as well as set new targets on calorie reduction in four categories: pizzas, ready meals, burgers and savoury snacks. Participants were in general agreement that any targets agreed under the auspices of the PHRC should align with PHE’s own requirements to avoid duplication of effort and that the industry should also be proactive in helping PHE set an appropriate baseline for calorie reduction.
  • Sustainable diets, it was noted, are not just a consumer trend but fundamental if we are to have a functioning food system in the future. It was suggested that businesses should look to sustainable dietary guidelines such as WWF’s Livewell plate as a benchmark for sustainable dish design.
  • It was pointed out that nutrition in catering education can be variable. Some businesses do it extremely well, but is there a case for it to be made compulsory in catering colleges as it already is in many caterers’ in-house training schemes?
  • Product and dish innovation should aim to promote healthier products with a particular focus on increasing servings of fruit and vegetables. A number of foodservice companies have already pledged to increase the volume of fruit and veg in menus through the Food Foundation’s Peas Please campaign and it was suggested that others should be encouraged to follow their lead.
  • Communication, marketing and menu innovation are important tools for helping people make better choices. Participants discussed how menus and the food environment could be designed to nudge people toward making better choices, something Footprint explored in detail in its Designed with Health in Mind report, produced in partnership with Compass UK & Ireland this year.
  • The PHRC should promote healthy debate on legislation. Businesses shouldn’t adopt a default position that all regulation is bad but be prepared to engage with and challenge policymakers, both when regulation is seen as the wrong policy tool and when regulation could actually be the catalyst for the adoption of sustainable practices by rewarding responsible businesses.
  • Further to this point, it will be important to calibrate relationships with the Department of Health and PHE to ensure that foodservice’s voice is heard loud and clear in Westminster
  • Solving the high-street problem should be another priority. Foodservice is a fragmented sector and many of the unhealthiest foods are sold via independent takeaways and fast-food chains that are largely detached from the obesity agenda. Finding a way to engage these businesses is difficult but vital.
  • Collaboration among rival businesses can be a challenge. Foodservice is a competitive area and effective strategies to reformulate and innovate can be a source of competitive advantage. However, there was broad agreement that there is potential for greater vertical collaboration throughout the supply chain, with caterers working with their manufacturing partners to improve the health profile of food provided to the consumer.

Participants also heard from a series of speakers on some of the challenges and opportunities surrounding public health in policy and in practice.

Jack Winkler, an emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, spoke about current contradictions in government policy in relation to sugar and public health. He highlighted the absurdity of subsidising sugar production through the Common Agricultural Policy while taxing its consumption via the soft drinks levy, a contradiction that is soon to be exacerbated by the removal of sugar quotas in October, which is predicted to lower the commodity price of sugar. Winkler did, however, acknowledge that the soft drinks levy is a great example of an effective nutrition policy since it has already inspired many manufacturers to reformulate their products.

One such company is Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP), whose director of communications, Julian Hunt, explained that only 5% of CCEP’s products will be subject to the levy due to a sugar reduction programme that has been in place since 2015 and incorporates product reformulation, innovation, smaller pack sizes and a redirection of marketing towards no-sugar variants.

Bidfood’s director of technical services, David Jones, said that momentum on public health was starting to build both within his business and across the entire foodservice industry, although he noted that at times it could be challenging to work effectively with manufacturers which are constantly responding to new demands by their retail customers. Nevertheless, David Read, the chairman of Prestige Purchasing, said out-of-home businesses would need to work closely with their suppliers to build an attractive product set and get products into the right places.

Looking at the wider picture, WRAP’s healthy sustainable eating adviser, Christian Reynolds, stressed the importance of taking a holistic approach to achieving positive public health and sustainability outcomes. Reynolds is involved with Trifocal, the London-wide behaviour change initiative which aims to reduce avoidable food waste in the capital and increase awareness of healthy and sustainable eating. The aim is that information on how Londoners can reduce the amount of food they waste will be joined up with messages on how they can recycle the food waste that couldn’t be avoided, while also integrating messages about healthy sustainable eating.

It is this kind of joined-up approach that the PHRC will aim to imitate. “The Public Health Responsibility Conference is more than an annual event,” said Charles Miers, the joint CEO and co-founder of Footprint Media Group. “The conference is an association of businesses representative of the many different channels of foodservice as well as their respective supply chains.

“We seek to rethink solutions, drive better understanding of the industry within government and the opportunities for collaboration, whilst demonstrating that the industry is active and on the front foot. Most importantly the Public Health Responsibility Conference will be a united voice for the foodservice industry paving a path to a unilateral narrative.”

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