Data failure reflects badly on foodservice

Another week, another shot across the bows of foodservice for its response to the obesity crisis.

This time it was Public Health England which stuck the knife into the sector for the paucity of the data provided to inform new sugar reduction targets.

PHE has been engaging with the food industry for several months in an effort to extract data on sales, nutritional information and portion sizing from which it can create a baseline for targets to remove sugar from a raft of food categories. The retail sector has been largely compliant; but PHE made a point of stating that the quality of data from the out of home sector has been poor in comparison.

This is understandable up to a point. It is much easier to generate data on pre-packaged, bar coded products and to consolidate that information centrally. Consumer panel data is also far more comprehensive for the retail sector than it is for out of home, while there is no legal obligation for out of home operators to provide nutritional information, albeit some businesses provide this voluntarily on their websites or menus.

These factors only partly excuse the gulf in the quality of data, however.

In an attempt to supplement available data, PHE made requests to several foodservice businesses to supply nutritional information and volume sales data directly to them. Several businesses acquiesced but of the 15 that did so only two - JD Wetherspoon and Mitchells and Butlers - provided data for all measures requested by PHE. The rest were either unable or unwilling to go the extra mile.

Given the attention deflected onto the sector by retailers and manufacturers in recent months, this felt like a perfect opportunity for foodservice to show it is serious about playing its part in tackling obesity. For the most part it failed.

Such indifference is no longer acceptable. The sector now provides around a fifth of the calories in our diets and out of home sales are growing faster than retail. The obesity crisis is as much foodservice’s issue as it is retail’s.

We now know what PHE requires of food companies in terms of sugar reduction following the publication of its technical report last week. All sectors of the industry are challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute most to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in the first year of the programme.

Companies are encouraged to use a mix of approaches to meet the targets including reformulation, portion size reduction and promotion of low or no-sugar alternatives.

PHE will first report on progress in March 2018, at which point it will become clear to what extent foodservice companies are engaging with the sugar agenda.

Sceptics will, quite reasonably, point to the lack of a regulatory stick with which to beat those who choose not to participate as a fundamental weakness of the programme. But with retailers, manufacturers and now the authorities scrutinising the foodservice sector’s every move, laggards cannot expect to hide in the shadows forever.

By adopting a more open, collaborative, ‘can do’ approach, businesses can take the first steps to repositioning foodservice as a progressive, responsible sector. It would be a huge own goal if the opportunity were to go begging.

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