Data failings paint foodservice as villain of the sugar piece

Public Health England’s inability to build a full picture of reformulation progress is making out of home brands an easy target for critics. By Nick Hughes.

Knives were being sharpened for the out of home sector long before Public Health England (PHE) announced progress against first year sugar reduction targets last week.

Manufacturers have characterised foodservice as being “the dog that hasn’t barked” in the obesity debate while retailers have pointed to a lack of level playing field when out of home businesses choose not to engage with voluntary reformulation programmes.

In the event, the sector’s critics have been armed with all the weapons they need to launch a fresh assault on foodservice.

Not only has PHE’s own analysis shown that the average calorie content of foods consumed on-the-go is twice that of retailers and manufacturers, but nutritional data for the out of home sector is so inadequate that PHE couldn’t even produce an update on progress.

The blows were delivered swiftly and brutally. The Food and Drink Federation put out a statement calling on the out of home sector to show greater commitment to the programme. The British Retail Consortium, while less explicit, left little doubt over who it had it mind when it called on all food businesses to follow retailers’ lead in reducing sugar levels across a wide range of products. The Grocer magazine, meanwhile, plunged the knife in deepest when it decried the “predictable failure” of the out-of-home sector to engage with the programme, suggesting it amounted to a “public health scandal”.

But is this opprobrium really fair? Certainly, the calorie comparison doesn’t reflect well on foodservice brands, but to what extent can businesses really be blamed for data being so hard to come by?

After the sugar reduction baseline was set for the out of home sector in March 2017, PHE took the decision to change the data supplier to MCA, which could deliver a more comprehensive set of data on food purchases, used to estimate volume sales of different products. This means that direct comparisons with the baseline 2015 data are not valid.

But volume data in itself is meaningless without corresponding nutritional information. Unlike Kantar Worldpanel, which collects both purchase and nutritional data for retailer and manufacturer brands, MCA doesn’t collect nutritional data since there is no legal obligation for the out of home sector to provide it. PHE is therefore reliant on businesses voluntarily sharing nutritional information on their products to supplement its own analysis of menus and websites.

And this is where criticism of the sector begins to feel more legitimate. Because although PHE does not explicitly state that such information has not been forthcoming, the tone of a blog by its chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone suggests this to be the case. Tedstone says out of home businesses have not been “let off the hook” in reducing sugar in their products and expects them to “step up and take comprehensive action” before it reports progress in 2019.

UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls maintains that good progress is being made by the sector in most areas, although she admits that the report does highlight data limitations so early in the study. “The data for out of home will be better developed in time for the 2019 report, which will be able to give a better indication of progress regarding hospitality’s efforts to reduce sugar,” says Nicholls.

There’s no doubt that some companies have stepped up to the plate. The report lists a total of 33 out of home businesses as having provided PHE with nutrition information. Some, like Sodexo, Costa and Merlin Entertainments (via their supplier Bidfood) provided data on many hundreds of products. Sources close to the programme, however, confirm that, in general, foodservice engagement remains patchy and what data there is has shown little evidence of meaningful reformulation.

We’ve been here before, of course. Last year, PHE called out foodservice businesses for the paucity of the data provided to inform baseline sugar reduction targets. Some businesses were fully compliant with PHE’s requests but many more were unwilling or unable to supplement the limited amount of public data available. This latest failure of PHE to produce comparable out of home data suggests little has changed.

That’s not to say that retailers and manufacturers have been perfectly compliant.  A number of businesses were unwilling to allow PHE to use their sales data to inform the analysis; however there is sufficient data at a category level to give an overall picture of retailer and manufacturer progress.  

In some ways attacks on foodservice companies deflect from an overall failure on the part of the food industry to meet year one targets. Only breakfast cereals, yoghurts and sweet spreads and sauces hit the 5% target. Ice creams and sugar confectionery managed small reductions in their sugar content, while there was no change in biscuits and chocolate confectionery. Astonishingly, sugar levels in puddings actually rose by 1%.

Some will also question the robustness of data that is already several months out of date. Results are based on data for the year ending August/September 2017, which has subsequently taken eight months to process and publish. PHE acknowledges it will have missed product reformulation that has taken place since the year one cut-off point.

Businesses could reasonably argue that they had just six months between the baseline targets being published in March 2017 and the data being collected in September to make any changes.

Reformulation is complex and rarely happens so quickly. But a sugar reduction programme was announced as part of the government’s childhood obesity plan in August 2016 so businesses would have known it was coming down the track. Savvy brands will have been reformulating since the plan was launched, if not beforehand (baseline data is from 2015 so any product reformulation made since then will have been captured).

Sugar is not dropping off the public or policy agenda. The government has already asserted it has not ruled out taking further action if faster progress is not made. The pressure group, Action on Sugar, meanwhile, is already pushing for a confectionery tax after PHE data showed the soft drinks levy has resulted in an 11% reduction in sugar levels in drinks within its scope. It is also lobbying for mandatory front-of-pack nutritional labelling for all products sold out of home.

Foodservice companies still have an opportunity to prevent the need for more draconian action. But time is running out. If 2019 results do not show significant progress the sector’s critics will waste little time going in for the kill.

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