Where next for the Responsibility Deal?

LEADING FOODSERVICE figures met on the second birthday of the governments wide-ranging health deal to discuss whether it's been a success and what challenges lie ahead.

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The government's Public Health Responsibility Deal is reaching a critical stage. Last month the wide-ranging deal had its second birthday and, while accurate analysis of its effect on the nation’s health is some way off, any voluntary agreement of this kind needs to evolve. A box-ticking exercise this cannot be.

In April, Footprint Media Group brought together more than 20 of the catering sector’s nutrition experts, as well as influential managers from a range of companies, large and small, for a health and vitality summit. With one in six meals eaten out of home (OOH) and almost a fifth of calorie intake coming from OOH meals for women, and a quarter for men, the foodservice industry has a responsibility to take national health seriously. And it is doing so. The Responsibility Deal has 370 partners from foodservice, representing 64% of the catering sector by turnover.

But all is not well in the world of health policy.

In spite of the commitments made and the recognition of the sector’s role in tackling health issues such as obesity, foodservice remains much misunderstood. “Government doesn’t understand our industry at all,” said one industry executive. “They invite us to meetings and they look at distributors, catering companies and fast-food outlets and they think we’re all the same. There is no understanding of our business, how food is procured or the challenges we face.”

Some of the pledges are well thought out, but the one-size-fits-all approach cannot always work. Foodservice is, contrary to what government might believe, very different to retail. “I’m making a general, sweeping statement here but there’s a view that the foodservice industry just uses packaged goods, as opposed to taking ingredients and making our own,” said one attendee.

Last summer, the government introduced a new set of salt pledges aimed specifically at caterers. The pledges commit companies to cutting salt use in their kitchens by 15%, ensuring that at least 50% of the products they procure meet the 2012 salt targets (a target which will increase over time) and reformulating the dishes they serve to their customers to cut salt, prioritising those which contribute the most salt to diets.

So is the deal working? Some felt it was just a forum for companies to show what they are already doing, rather than “making anyone do anything differently”. Others said it might not be working quite as fast as government and industry wanted, but critically it’s achieving more than legislation could – and more quickly. However, the foodservice sector, for one – and perhaps as one – needs to communicate better with officials at the Department of Health. Only then, said some attendees, would there be more relevant pledges and more progress in OOH meals.

In March, the government urged more caterers to commit to the salt pledges. The health minister also wants to see more takeaways and small businesses involved. How to achieve that is, according to those at the summit, “the real challenge” to date. “I’m not saying it’s easy” for us, said an executive from one of the bigger players, “but it’s difficult for the smaller players who don’t have the resources we do – no teams of dietitians, no sourcing experts and so on to drive it forward.”

Some of the larger companies are trying to help government reach smaller foodservice operators given that some “haven’t even heard of the Responsibility Deal”. Educating chefs in small and medium-sized operations is also paramount, with many “unaware of the calorie counts of their dishes ... they don’t want to know”, claimed one executive. Larger companies could, again, play a role, but there were also calls for a “consensus on health and vitality in the foodservice sector”.

This would not be easy given confusion in areas such as labelling. Those in the catering industry are sometimes nervous about providing information given that preparation on one site can be different from another. Consumers do have to be offered choice, but there is a lot of “noise” on menus, with traffic lights, calories, guideline daily amounts and other symbols such as V for vegetarian. Other factors also have to be considered, such as how “natural” the product is, and there is a growing demand for foodservice to provide information on sustainability to clients and customers.

The question is: how much is too much? Some suggested a kitemark could work, with symbols often conveying “powerful and simple” messaging. “The overarching banner has got to be giving people choice and giving people the right information to make that choice,” said one expert. “Within this, there’s room to nudge and push. For example where you position your fruit and where you put your healthy choices [nudging] or menu engineering [pushing].”

The feeling is that the Responsibility Deal is working and will have a positive effect on public health in the longer term. There are challenges ahead, and government and industry will have to continually adapt to make the most of this kind of voluntary initiative. Early adopters of the health and vitality agenda, for example, will have a role in helping to pull others along. Reaching out to smaller businesses is also crucial. This is a sector-wide challenge and the sector needs to communicate, act and progress as one.

Do you agree with the industry views here? Are you a small company trying to make sense of the Responsibility Deal? Get in touch: david@foodservicefootprint.com

In quotes...

 Misunderstood by government

“There’s a view that the foodservice industry just uses packaged goods, as opposed to taking ingredients and making our own.”

“They look at distributors, catering companies and fast-food outlets and they think we’re all the same.”

“They believe we operate similarly to the retail sector.” 

Taking responsibility

"It would be interesting to see what proportion of the population we are collectively responsible for feeding every day. There's a massive job to be done raising awareness of the role of foodservice in health and wellbeing."

Responsibility deal

"Because of the openness and lack of legislative force behind [the Responsibility Deal] it can just be a forum for people reporting what they are already doing...rather than making people do anything differently."

'It's difficult for the smaller players who don't have the resources we [bigger companies] do."

Labelling not black and white

"The challenge is that all our products are made fresh in different kitchens around the country and while we can give guidance on ingredients, some members of the cooking team will use more seasoning than others so all products will be slightly different."

"The EU is struggling on defining nutritional profiles so it wouldn't be easy to form criteria against which as [foodservice] kite mark could be measured."

Next steps

Given the role of foodservice in tackling nationwide health issues, the intention is for this group to meet regularly.

 Dr Susan Jebb (Chair of the Public Health Responsibility Deal Food Network) recognising the potential a foodservice supply chain specific group could have, has confirmed her attendance.

 The next meeting is to be hosted July 4th 15.00 - 17.00 at Brakes Head Office 10 Southampton Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7HA.

 If you would like to get involved please contact events@footprint-forum.com 

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