Spider-Man’s power and sticking up for foodservice.

IGD has forecast that the food-to-go market is set to rocket in the next five years. Sales will hit £21.7 billion by 2021, compared with a meagre £16.1 billion this year. There will be more options at supermarkets and garage forecourts, the analysts predicted, as well as an expansion in “specialist” outlets and of course coffee shops. Good news: power to foodservice. But as Spider-Man and others have noted, with such power comes great responsibility.

Having read the Childhood Obesity Plan again over the past few weeks it’s become increasingly clear to me that this government is happy to lay the weight of the challenge on industry’s shoulders. And thanks to Channel 4’s “Dispatches”, we now know that Theresa May dismantled her predecessor’s more ambitious plan leaving what is, to all intents and purposes, a Responsibility Deal Take 2 (RDT2). I for one am not a fan of sequels.

The new prime minister appears to have followed Michael Gove’s infamous advice on experts, completely ignoring the likes of Public Health England and McKinsey in relation to what a successful approach to tackling obesity might look like. That’s just foolish.

My reservations appear to put me at odds with those in foodservice – at least judging from the initial reactions in October’s Footprint Forum. The industry-led, regulation-light plan offers flexibility, so the argument goes. The cynic in me says it offers a pass to do nothing, especially among the smaller players in the market.

The optimist says this is the last chance saloon so industry has to make it work. If this RDT2 fails, a voluntary approach in take 3 will be hard to justify – even in 2020, should there be a new government. Action needs to be swift. The inclusion of the levy on sugar-sweetened drinks in the finance bill in November just six weeks or so after the consultation had been completed suggests the wind is in the sails of that particular policy.

The sugar tax is, however, the lone stick in a strategy littered with carrots. This could leave many scrabbling around the dark for solutions. Read the paper and it’s all a bit “Shoulda, woulda, coulda”, as Beverley Knight once sang – and my bet is that it’ll be those in foodservice left wondering “what they’re gonna do”. Why? For a start the sector is more diverse than its manufacturing or retail cousins but – and perhaps more critically – there is little to no leadership on this issue.

“The dog that has not barked properly in the whole obesity debate,” is Ian Wright’s (very public) impression of the foodservice sector. The Food and Drink Federation director general’s dogmatic defence of manufacturers can become tiresome, but he certainly sticks up for his members (though not all of them, according to a survey published this week by the Children’s Food Campaign).

The hierarchy at the British Retail Consortium appears to feel the same way. At the obesity summit where Wright made his comments (see overleaf), foodservice was noticeable only for its absence. I asked the organisers why. They admitted it was tricky to include everyone in the various panels, but in trying to get foodservice companies to attend and participate in the discussions “we found a lack of engagement or an unwillingness at this stage to get involved because they were in ‘listening mode’”.

And all the while the critics sharpen their knives. The message from the FDF and BRC is early and it is clear: if the obesity plan fails, the rest of the industry will be eager to point the finger at foodservice. That might not seem fair – retailers and manufacturers need to up their game considerably – but a sector without strong representation is an easy target.

Bidvest’s opinion piece in this month’s issue is a refreshing change: hard-hitting and honest, the firm’s David Jones admits that the Responsibility Deal “fell short” for a number of reasons. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but he is confident that the industry and government can learn from their mistakes.

Of course, it’s hard to say what success or failure will look like because there’s no target in the plan. “We aim to significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years.” Depending on how you look at it, this is either a masterstroke or madness from the prime minister, but it’s not an excuse to relax.

When he announced the sugar tax back in March’s budget, the then chancellor, George Osborne, said that he was “not prepared to look back at my time here in this parliament, doing this job and say to my children’s generation: I’m sorry. We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks. We knew it caused disease. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.”

I am, as you may have guessed, sceptical of the plan into which Osborne’s potential legacy has been shunted. There have been warm words and mudslinging in equal measure. In 10 years’ time, when progress is really tested (somehow) against the government’s non-existent target, will May, like Beverley Knight, be left wishing she’d done a little bit more?

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