Second chance for the slackers

The government is again asking businesses to take a voluntary approach to obesity. Will the Childhood Obesity Plan succeed where the Responsibility Deal failed? By Nick Hughes.

The dog that has not barked properly in the whole obesity debate.” That was the damning verdict on the foodservice sector from the Food and Drink Federation’s director general, Ian Wright, as he addressed the

Childhood Obesity Summit at the Royal Society in November. There was no doubt an element of chicanery in Wright’s words – it is after all his job to deflect attention from his supplier members – but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there was more than a grain of truth in his statement.

It is widely accepted that part of the failure of the government’s Responsibility Deal was a lack of engagement on the part of foodservice businesses. Aside from the largest contract caterers such as Compass and Sodexo, and a handful of progressive high-street chains such as Subway, the out-of-home sector was largely invisible among businesses pledging to reformulate products or reduce portion sizes. And while there’s some validity in the industry’s complaint that the government misunderstood the nature of the sector and, in particular, the diversity of business models, this does not entirely excuse the overall lack of engagement.

With the government once again favouring a voluntary approach to reformulation in its Childhood Obesity Plan, there is little evidence thus far to suggest that a critical mass of foodservice businesses will fall into line this time around. Yes, there are pockets of good practice: Mitchells & Butlers, for instance, is aiming for a 20% sugar reduction in high-selling products by 2020. However, the British Hospitality Association’s line that it will support the government to reduce childhood obesity “as long as the proposals are practical, workable and likely to be effective” does not sound like a clarion call to take action.

After the unveiling of the Responsibility Deal targets, some companies did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that any media criticism was a price worth paying

A 20% reduction in sugar across a range of products is one of the central pillars of the new plan. The target, including a 5% reduction by the end of year one, is to be achieved through a reduction of sugar levels in products (by reducing portion sizes or shifting purchasing towards lower-sugar alternatives) and applies to retailers, manufacturers and the out-of-home sector. Four-year category-specific targets will be published in March 2017 and progress will

be measured on the basis of reductions in the sales weighted average sugar content per 100 grams of food and drink, reductions in portion size, and clear sales shifts towards lower-sugar alternatives.

While the approach at least feels more prescriptive than the Responsibility Deal pledges, there are no apparent levers for ensuring that individual companies contribute. Public Health England has made it clear it does not intend to name and shame industry laggards, and instead favours highlighting success stories.

PHE plans to publish a progress report every six months and then do a thorough assessment of progress at 18 and 36 months. But when pressed on how it plans to enforce take-up by the out-of-home sector, Alison Tedstone, PHE’s director of diet and obesity, did not have a convincing answer. Her reassurance that “we’ll be putting huge resource and effort into engaging the out-of-home sector and putting a team together specifically for that reason” did little to assuage fears that engaging such a fragmented sector in voluntary measures is hugely challenging; particularly given the absence of a trade body dedicated purely to foodservice to coordinate efforts – a point made emphatically by Wright.

‘We are very good at going after the home- cooked pizzas in terms of reducing calories, but are we doing the same type of intervention on the Domino’s delivered pizza?’

Regrettably, there was not one foodservice representative present at the summit to counter Wright’s assertion and present a positive vision for how businesses plan to engage with the government’s plan. However, a Footprint Forum in October suggested the sector is behind the new plan and its flexible framework.

Many others are not so sure. The manufacturing sector was not alone in taking foodservice to task. Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, assistant director for food policy at the British Retail Consortium, said the fact the Childhood Obesity Plan did not set a level playing field for reformulation was a major weakness. In the run-up to the launch of the plan, the BRC was vocal in calling for reformulation targets to be mandatory so as not to give an unfair advantage to companies which refused to act.

Martinez-Inchausti gave the example of pizza delivery companies – a fast- growing segment of the foodservice sector – which were not competing on a level playing field with supermarkets because there was little pressure on the former to reformulate their products. She added that after the unveiling of the Responsibility Deal targets, some companies did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that any media criticism was a price worth paying for not investing in reformulation, while those businesses that did take voluntary action bore the costs but did not necessarily reap the commercial benefits.

If this looks like sour grapes from the retail sector then consider that Richard Dobbs from McKinsey – whose influential report “How the World Could Better Fight Obesity” mapped and assessed possible interventions – also said that for any voluntary reformulation plan to work there needed to be a level playing field between retail and foodservice. Running with the pizza theme, he commented: “We are very good at going after the home-cooked pizzas in terms of reducing calories, but are we doing the same type of intervention on the Domino’s delivered pizza?”

Both Tedstone and the Department of Health’s obesity lead, Emma Reed, were at pains to stress that if progress was not made voluntarily, the government would consider using other policy levers to effect change. Yet the same claim was made when the Responsibility Deal was in its infancy and those threats were ultimately empty.

Foodservice businesses that have not yet engaged with the obesity agenda should be grateful for a second chance to prove they can be responsible corporate citizens. With rival business sectors, as well as health lobbyists, pointing the finger in their direction, they are running out of places to hide.

Nick Hughes is associate editor of Footprint.

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