Are new calorie targets an empty threat?

PHE has published demanding new guidelines for calorie reduction, but with the body due to be axed and targets still voluntary will businesses take them seriously? Nick Hughes reports.

In March 2018, PHE published a paper which challenged all sectors of the food industry to reduce the calories in products that contribute significantly to children’s calorie intakes by 20% by 2024. On September 7th 2020, two and a half years and many delays later, PHE finally fired the starting gun on the programme.

The timing is curious. It comes just weeks after the announcement that PHE itself is due to be axed and in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic that has caused major disruption to food supply chains and decimated the out of home eating sector. “This is not the time to throw petrol into the fire,” suggested UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls.

The new technical guidelines also arrived just two days before the National Audit Office (NAO) published its own report on the effectiveness of the government’s approach to reducing childhood obesity in England which concluded that existing policies have had limited success. Coincidence? Possibly, although the fact the NAO specifically pointed to “mixed” progress with reformulation programmes suggests an urgency on the part of officials and ministers to provide some evidence of affirmative action.

Irrespective of the timing, businesses have had plenty of warning that calorie reduction targets were on the way. It was all the way back in August 2017 that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) first commissioned Public Health England (PHE) to develop a calorie reduction programme, thereby making good on one of the key commitments in the government of the day’s childhood obesity plan.

So what do the new proposals mean for foodservice operators? And is the new programme likely to have the desired effect of reducing the nation’s excess calorie consumption and contributing to the government’s ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030?

The standout headline from the guidelines is that the 20% by 2024 reduction target now only applies to foodservice operators. Lobbying efforts by retailers and manufacturers have been successful in persuading PHE that a 20% ambition across all take home categories was unrealistic and would not reflect the lower calorie ranges seen in the sector due to reformulation work already carried out. As a result, the new target for the majority of retailer and manufacturer branded products, including ready meals, breaded and battered products, is a 10% average reduction in calories from a 2017 baseline alongside maximum calories per portion guidelines for products likely to be consumed in a single occasion.

For products consumed outside of the home, PHE has used a mix of commercial and nutrition data to come up with a list of categories that need to cut their calorie content by up to 20%. Starters, side dishes and small plates, including things like garlic bread and chicken wings, have a target of 375 calories from a baseline of 465; while main meals such as a burger with chips, or a sausage with vegetables and mash, should be reduced from 1,080 to 860 calories. An exception to the 20% rule are children’s meal bundles, which include a combination of a starter, main meal, pudding and/or drink for a set price. PHE says these will require a 10% calorie reduction reflecting the progress already made by the sector in making children’s meals healthier.

For some categories where products are similar across take home and out of home, joint guidelines have been set. PHE says reduction targets of 5% for both sandwiches and crisps and savoury snacks reflect the more limited opportunities for reformulation. For pizza and pastry products, however, the target reverts to 20%.

Businesses are being encouraged to use similar tactics to reduce calories as they have already done (to varying degrees of success) with sugar including reducing calorie levels, reducing the size of products likely to be consumed in a single occasion and shifting consumer purchasing towards lower calorie products.

But with obesity policy in a state of flux what prospect is there for the calorie programme achieving its intended result?

The first, and most obvious risk is that there is little clarity on who will assume ownership of the programme once PHE is wound down next March. Detailed progress reports are due to be published in 2022, 2024 and 2025 but by whom is not clear. The government is in the process of consulting on the most appropriate destination for future obesity-related work – whoever takes on the task will need to be properly resourced to carry out work that requires detailed analysis and intensive stakeholder engagement.

Next, comes the question of how seriously businesses will take the targets? It is notable that in PHE’s relatively short press release announcing the new calorie guidelines the word “voluntary” is used no fewer than five times. Compare this tone with the release of sugar guidelines back in 2017 when the word voluntary is absent entirely, despite the targets being non-mandatory.

PHE says the government remains committed to further action if results are not seen, yet this increasingly feels like an empty threat, especially when the government shows no sign of mandating sugar guidelines despite reduction efforts falling well short of targets.

“Industry has been consulted extensively on these new targets and as such we expect them to step up and meet the targets on time and in full,” says Caroline Cerny, alliance lead at the Obesity Health Alliance. “But this is ultimately a voluntary programme, which is why we need the government to clearly commit to sanctions for companies that do not take the responsible approach such as fines and levies.”

The food manufacturing sector has already started pushing back against the targets. FDF chief operating office Tim Rycroft told The Grocer that even the more lenient 10% guideline for most food and drink represented a “monumental challenge for the sector, particularly given the challenges of covid and Brexit”.

Even if calorie targets are met it remains unclear to what extent product reformulation will correlate with a fall in obesity rates. In its report, the NAO noted how previous governments have tried to reduce rates of childhood obesity but with limited success. It went on to criticise the DHSC for not fully evaluating whether these past strategies reduced childhood obesity.

The NAO did conclude that interventions set out in the latest plan, for example calorie reduction, are “largely right”, however “the evidence base that the type of intervention used will reduce childhood obesity rates is more mixed”.

What’s not in doubt is that achieving calorie reduction targets, alongside existing sugar and new salt guidelines (more on these next week) will place exacting demands on foodservice operators at a time when teams are stretched and business prospects are bleak.

Will businesses volunteer to act? Or will they sit back and call the bluff of a government whose threats to legislate for reformulation have so far proved empty?

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