A government review of nutritional standards for public sector food will cause caterers to miss out on lucrative contracts unless they up their game, writes Nick Hughes.
Caterers looking to grab a slice of the £2bn public sector food market will soon have to raise their game on healthy food provision.
Earlier this month, the government concluded a consultation on plans to update the nutrition element of the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF). If adopted, the proposals would see public sector buyers look even more unfavourably on caterers supplying unhealthy foods high in salt, sugar and fat as well as on sugary drinks.
A review of the GBSF nutrition standards was a key pledge from the second chapter of the government’s childhood obesity plan and will bring standards in line with new dietary advice from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), particularly around the recommended intake of sugars. Once adopted, the government is proposing companies will have a year to implement the new rules or risk missing out on lucrative food and catering contracts worth a total of more than £2bn a year.
Currently, all central government departments and their agencies, as well as prisons, the armed forces and the NHS, are required to comply with the GBSF when purchasing food and catering services. The wider public sector is also encouraged – although not required – to apply the standards, including to food and drink sold through vending machines.
As well as being an important market financially, experts have identified public sector food provision as being key to achieving wider health and sustainability goals. This summer’s high-profile IPCC report on land use observed that policies to improve nutrition in public procurement had the potential to reduce healthcare costs, contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions and enhance adaptive capacity.
The recent final report by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, meanwhile, said that “a world-leading drive to normalise sustainable and healthy procurement for public value across the public estate” was a “quick-win” on the road to a more sustainable food and farming future. The latest updates to the nutrition standards focus broadly on reducing salt, sugar and saturated fat in a variety of products; increasing fibre within bread; and reducing portion sizes among savoury snacks and confectionery. Key among the proposals are to:
- increase from 50% to 75% the proportion of meat products, breads,
soups, cooking sauces, ready meals, breakfast cereals and sandwiches
that meet 2017 salt targets
- exclude fresh fruit from a requirement that at least half of dessert options
should contain at least 50% of their weight as fruit
- exclude products high in fat, sugar and salt from meals deals
- ensure at least 50% of bread and 75% of the bread in pre-packed
sandwiches contain at least 3g of fibre per 100g.
There is also a new requirement for at least 75% of biscuits, cakes, morning goods, puddings, yoghurts and ice creams covered by Public Health England’s sugar-reduction programme to meet a set of maximum calorie limits.
In addition, a previously voluntary standard that savoury snacks can only be available in pack sizes of 35g or less has been made mandatory, as has the requirement that at least 75% of confectionery and packet sweet snacks are sold in the smallest standard single-serve portion size available.
Pack size is also a focus for new standards around soft drinks, with a voluntary requirement that all sugar-sweetened beverages are no more than 330ml in size set to become compulsory, while in future no more than 10% of beverages will be permitted to be sugar-sweetened, down from 20% previously.
On announcing the review of standards back in 2018 the government stated that “the public sector should be leading by example in ensuring a healthy food environment for children and parents on their premises”.
The current set of proposals represents another small step towards fulfilling that ambition. But the political landscape is changing rapidly. Recent reports claim that school food standards could be revised or dropped in the event of a no-deal Brexit as local councils economise in the face of rising prices.
With a no-deal scenario looking increasingly likely, this latest drive for better-
quality public sector food could yet leave a sour taste.