Why we’re still waiting for out-of-home calorie labelling

The government is dragging its heels about revealing its preferred next steps on the provision of mandatory calorie labelling in the out-of-home sector. Nick Hughes takes an in-depth look at the reasons for this apparent indecision.

Foodservice businesses looking for clarity on new calorie labelling rules may have to wait a little longer yet.

More than six months has passed since the government closed its consultation on the provision of mandatory calorie labelling in the out-of-home sector, and yet there is still no sign of a formal response from the Department of Health and Social Care setting out its preferred next steps.

The debate over calorie labelling was reignited last month after The Sun ran a story claiming that thousands of takeaways, cafes and small restaurants employing fewer than 250 staff would be exempted from listing calorie counts due to Treasury concern about the cost to small businesses.

Diabetes UK responded by accusing the government of a “cop out” and calling for the urgent publication of the calorie labelling proposals.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it was still considering feedback on the consultation and would publish its response later this year. And with secretary of state Matthew Hancock distracted by his short-lived, unsuccessful campaign to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, summer recess looming on the horizon, and Brexit continuing to consume the parliamentary agenda, the prospects for a decisive verdict on calorie labelling anytime soon appear slim.

How did we get to this point and why is mandatory calorie labelling proving such a contentious issue?

The intention to legislate for consistent calorie labelling for the out-of-home sector was set out in the update to the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, published in June 2018. A consultation document was subsequently published in September in which stakeholders were asked for their views on a number of questions including whether microbusinesses employing fewer than 10 people, such as single-operator food trucks, should be made exempt from future regulations.

The government said it intended to lay secondary legislation before parliament in spring 2019, with regulation coming into force no earlier than spring 2020. The first of those targets has already been missed and it seems inevitable now that the second date will also be pushed back.

The question of calorie labelling revisits the age-old debate over the cost to business of healthy eating policies versus the benefits to society.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt set a target to halve childhood obesity by 2030, a target he acknowledged was not going to be easy to achieve. Indeed, it seemed inevitable when Hunt published his department’s obesity plan that policies that required legislative rather than purely voluntary action would face opposition from within his own government.

The row over calorie labelling is a case in point. In a letter last year to the Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, seen by The Telegraph, chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss expressed concern that mandating calorie labelling would cost businesses an average of £500 each per year, adding that individual costs may be particularly burdensome to micro and small businesses that frequently change their menus to offer seasonal local foods.

It is unclear exactly where Truss’s £500 figure came from, however the Department of Health and Social Care’s own impact assessment of the policy option that excludes microbusinesses calculates a total cost to out-of-home businesses of £290m, which includes the initial cost of calculating energy values for food and drink products, labelling costs, and ongoing annual costs including the introduction of new products, reformulation and the use of a calorie calculator tool. Split between the 27,075 out-of-home businesses in England that employ 10 people or more over a 25-year period this equates to £438 per business per year.

Industry representatives have been keen to highlight to ministers the impact of the additional cost burden, particularly for smaller operators. When plans for mandatory calorie labelling were first announced in part two of the Childhood Obesity Plan, UKHospitality said it was “wary” of menu calorie labelling impacts on an under-pressure sector. CEO Kate Nichol suggested it would “hamper venues’ endeavours to incorporate seasonal ingredients and ‘specials’ to attract custom, as well as restricting smaller restaurants’ ability to innovate, particularly when tackling food waste”.

At the end of the consultation period in December 2018, and perhaps sensing the direction the wind was blowing, UKHospitality’s position shifted subtly as it expressed its support for “government efforts to provide customers with nutritional information”. The trade body confirms it still favours voluntary approaches to calorie labelling over mandatory requirements, but if the government does choose to go down the legislative route it would want to see businesses given the flexibility to present information in a way that minimises the cost burden and is sufficiently flexible to meet the specific needs of their customers.

There is some scepticism too over whether putting calories on labels actually changes consumption. Research published last year by the University of Cambridge behaviour and health research unit showed that only one of six workplace cafeterias that displayed calorie information over a 17-week period showed a reduction in energy purchased by workers.

Campaigners, however, are determined to fight for the adoption of proposals that, even when microbusinesses are excluded, are calculated to bring £6.9 billion in net benefits to the economy over the next 25 years, mainly through health benefits and savings in the NHS and social care – benefits they worry are now under threat.

If the decision has indeed been taken to exempt any business employing fewer than 250 employees from future regulation it would apply to just 520 businesses representing just 0.3% of the 168,040 restaurants around the country, according to analysis by Diabetes UK.

“If the government is serious about addressing inequalities and supporting the most vulnerable in our society, then they must be ambitious in their action to tackle obesity,” says Helen Dickens, assistant director of policy & campaigns at Diabetes UK. “The government must publish their calorie labelling plans urgently, and provide assurances that medium-sized businesses are included in their plans – along with a clear timeline for implementation in these businesses.”

Research from Diabetes UK suggests consumers are on the side of health campaigners. Some 76% of UK adults agree that all cafes and restaurants should display calorie information on menus, and 75% say the same in relation to takeaways.

On 5 June, Diabetes UK wrote an open letter to Hancock reiterating its call for a change in policy. “Some major companies are responding to consumer demand,” the letter states. “The majority aren’t.”Out-of-home calorie labelling was one of the pledges included in the now defunct Public Health Responsibility Deal, following which the likes of McDonald’s and Wetherspoons started voluntarily providing calorie information on their menus.

But because 42% of turnover in the out-of-home sector comes from micro and small businesses, voluntary approaches require a much larger number of signatories to reach the same level of market coverage that could be achieved by getting the big four supermarkets to commit to a public health initiative.

Under pressure from the bean counters in the Treasury and from business representatives, the government has yet to bow to the will of campaigners and the public.

The future of calorie labelling remains in the balance.

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