Not loving it

LACK OF progress on the government’s high-profile public health partnership with many high-street brands means ministers may need to take a harder line.

Foodservice Footprint Page-17 Not loving it Event Reports Features Features Out of Home News Analysis  Sodexo Public Health Responsibility Deal Jo Newstead Health & Vitality Special Interest Group Department of Health










It’s easy to see why the Public Health Responsibility Deal has its detractors. Launched in March 2011, the industry-government partnership is intended to “create the right environment to empower individuals to take responsibility for their health and make healthy choices”. But given that just one in three high-street food outlets display calorie labels – one of the most high- profile pledges – it’s becoming harder and harder to see if this approach will ever work.


The Footprint Special Interest Group welcomed Jo Newstead, the Food Network lead for the deal at the Department of Health, to its July meeting. It was clear that her team has been disappointed with the engagement levels of the branded restaurants on the high-street. “We need much more traction from the out-of-home sector on the high-street,” she said. “The contract caterers have been better.”


This polarity is perhaps not surprising. Not only will the contract caterers be under pressure from clients – private or public – to come into line with health policies, but their low profile among the consumer at large enables them to work under the radar.


The responsibility deal requires commitments, and that means failure can lead to bad publicity. Let’s not forget that some of the pledges involve reformulation and an ability to adapt dishes and trial new offers: this is easier in a staff canteen than in the full glare of a busy city centre.


A quick glance at the signatories for the target on maximum salt per serving in the out-of-home (OOH) sector highlights this fear of failure. This pledge, specifically adjusted to take account of the OOH sector, is one that the campaign group CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) felt particularly positive about: “We hope that it will cause restaurants and the like to catch up with the rest of the food industry.” Yet just six companies have signed up since March 2014. Jamie’s Italian and Subway are the only high-street brands brave enough.


This raises the question: does the government need to take a harder line? Researchers from the policy research unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have assessed evaluations of 36 different voluntary agreements, concluding that they “can be an effective policy approach for governments to take to persuade businesses to take actions”.


There was an important caveat, however: “Agreements without appreciable sanctions for non-compliance and/or credible monitoring with publicity are less likely to be effective.”


In this respect, the government might have aproblem.Earlierthisyear,RichardCienciala, the deputy director of the Department of Health’s obesity and food policy branch, defended the close relationship and numerous meetings that have been held with the food sector. He said the Responsibility Deal “has been important, partly in the things it has achieved but also in the way it has provided a vehicle for industry to come together with the public health community, with NGOs; with those passionately interested in the subject and to find a common purpose”.


Critics argue that the scheme has been more collusion than collaboration. In March’s Footprint, Professor Martin Caraher from City University London highlighted the imbalance on steering groups that has led to changes in the wording of some pledges, which amounts to a watering down. Caraher also noted that most of the restaurant chains had agreed to add calorie labels to their menus, but declined to sign the calorie reduction pledge to reformulate or reduce the portion size of their products (see graphic).


It is clear that there is excellent work going on. But this still involves the few rather than the many and, generally, the contract caterers rather than the high-street brands. Change will take time. As Ian Nottage, the chef director at Reynolds, explained to the special interest group, there is a danger that government and industry are overlooking where big differences could be made, including training. “We’re two steps ahead and we should be taking two steps back. Chefs are trained to ‘bang in’ the butter, ‘bang in’ the salt and ‘bang in’ the sugar.”


Whether the Responsibility Deal is moving forward is difficult to determine: measurement of its impact is, by the Department of Health’s own admission, proving difficult. What is clear, though, is that to have any chance of nudging people towards healthier choices, Newstead and her team might also need to provide the high- street chains with a poke. Otherwise, they may have to reach for the regulatory stick.

Foodservice Footprint Who-has-signed-up-1 Not loving it Event Reports Features Features Out of Home News Analysis  Sodexo Public Health Responsibility Deal Jo Newstead Health & Vitality Special Interest Group Department of Health