Is Health a Big Deal for Foodservice?

The Government is pinning its hopes, and the nation’s health, on a voluntary initiative with the food and drink industry. But what does the Responsibility Deal mean for foodservice? Nick Hughes and David Burrows report.


For the Government, the Responsibility Deal is a big deal. “It shows how partnership and challenge can be an effective way of tackling some public health objectives,” said Health Secretary Andrew Lansley as he unveiled the 170 or so signatories to the first phase of the deal. The big idea is to make us a little smaller – by 2050, 90 per cent of us will be overweight or obese – and a fair bit healthier.


“Public health is everyone’s responsibility and there is a role for all of us, working in partnership, to tackle these challenges. We know that regulation is costly, can take years and is often only determined at an EU-wide level anyway. That’s why we have to introduce new ways of achieving better results.”


Lansley’s belief that “nannying for adults is actually the abdication of responsibility”, is not a view that is universally subscribed to, however. The deal already has some high profile critics. In the wake of its official launch, many health groups publicly questioned whether the Government is cutting the industry too much slack. At a recent conference on food and health attended by Lansley, Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at consumer group Which? claimed “the challenge with voluntary action is how you get enough people buying into it,” while the National Heart Forum’s chief executive Paul Lincoln questioned whether “self regulation appeases the lowest common denominator”.


Others have been more specific in their criticisms, suggesting that the pledges are not tough enough on issues like alcohol promotions and labelling. There is also, say some detractors, a lack of clarity in terms of what happens if the pledges are not met. More regulation is one option, but that is, for now, far from the radar. This Government wants less regulation, not more.


When in 2009, as Shadow Health Secretary, Lansley commissioned a group of food and fitness industry leaders to produce a report that would inform the Conservative Party’s public health policy, it was in recognition of the important role industry had to play in improving the nation’s wellbeing. Since his promotion to the role of Health Secretary, Lansley has perpetuated his belief that it’s better to have industry with you than against you. The Responsibility Deal is testament to that.


As part of the deal, the Department of Health has established five networks of stakeholders on food, alcohol, physical activity, health at work and behaviour change that will meet regularly to report on progress and discuss future actions. Lansley sits on the panel of each network in a clear signal of his determination to achieve positive resolutions.


The first stage of the deal asks food companies to sign up to three pledges: to provide calorie information out of home, meet salt reduction targets by 2012 and remove all trans fats by the end of 2011. The initial list of signatories reads like a who’s who of food industry suppliers and retailers, including the likes of Tesco, Asda, Unilever and PepsiCo, however foodservice operators are conspicuously under-represented.


Companies can, of course, sign up to as many, or as few, pledges as they like. Only Compass Group, 7 Day Catering Ltd, Yo! Sushi and ISS Facility Services Healthcare have subscribed to all three food pledges. However, the likes of Compass are confident that a good start has been made.


“I think the range of organisations and businesses involved in the Responsibility Deal across all of the Networks shows there is a genuine appetite for a partnership approach which will have a real impact on society, making it easier for people to make healthy choices and maintain a balanced diet and active lifestyle,” says Mick Hickman, foodservice director, Compass Group UK & Ireland.


Compass has already rolled out nutritional information for its centrally- developed core range of hundreds of recipes across approximately 2,000 workplaces. By signing up to the Responsibility Deal, “we can take things further”, says Hickman. “We are currently introducing nutritional information in Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) format across our public sector contracts. In line with the Food Network pledge we will commence the roll-out of calorie labelling across our other business sectors in September this year.”


Sodexo is also working on a similar rollout with one of its UK clients. Phil Hooper, the corporate affairs director, says his clients are demanding more information all the time because “they value the health of their work force”. To date, however, and in spite of years of talks between industry and regulators (formerly the Food Standards Agency), progress on calorie labelling has been limited in foodservice. Many operators who took part in a recent 18-month trial to include calories on menus have decided against taking the initiative forward and although the likes of Pret A Manger, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Wimpy have put their name to the pledge they are in the minority.


Lansley is unlikely to be as patient; the Health Secretary is known to be a keen advocate of restaurants providing calorie counters and in September called for calories to be routinely displayed on menus in restaurants and takeaway chains. Sodexo’s Hooper is hopeful of progress. “It’s not the ea

siest thing to do and it won’t happen overnight … [but] I’m confident we’ll see things moving forward.”

Indeed, one of the guiding principles of the deal is that the example of the few will force the many into action. “What seems impossible to some companies becomes a must do as they see competitors breaking the mould,” says Mars UK managing director Fiona Dawson. Hooper also sees a leadership role for the big companies. “The larger companies tend to be the ones signing up to the Responsibility Deal at the moment, so we have a responsibility to help pull the smaller companies along with us too.”


Nowhere is this likely to be more relevant than in salt reduction. Salt targets for 2012 are widely thought to be technologically challenging in some foods, such as bacon, where salt acts as a preservative, but that’s not stopped companies such as McDonald’s and Subway from throwing their weight behind the agreement. Subway, for example, has already reduced salt levels across all of its products since 2008 and has also removed trans fats in their entirety.


Such cases display clear, positive intent to deliver change from the businesses involved. What non signatories need to ask themselves is can they afford not to be on board with the Responsibility Deal? Lansley has repeatedly stressed that he will not be afraid to regulate if voluntary actions do not achieve results. Those who have dragged their feet thus far should heed this advice and accept his deal; if not they risk waking up several years down the line to legislation, which they can’t possibly expect to conform to.