Nudge or be pushed

THE LIGHT-TOUCH approach to healthy food policy concerns campaigners, but the government and food businesses are now in contact more than ever – and it’s making a difference, Phil Hooper tells David Burrows. 


It’s no secret the coalition government likes to nudge rather than push. Nudging, an idea popularised by academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, guides people’s behaviour rather than prohibiting them from doing something. It’s cheaper than regulation and more popular.


David Cameron has embraced the theory in pledging to cut regulation while applying a light-touch approach to policy. Businesses have responded with support for new voluntary agreements.


Campaigners, on the other hand, have been more critical. While they see nudging as a helpful tool in encouraging healthier and greener behaviour, many believe it should complement, rather than replace, conventional policy approaches. “My concern is that the coalition government seems to be shedding its regulatory responsibilities in the name of nudge,” wrote Tom MacMillan, the then executive director of the Food Ethics Council, in the journal’s spring 2011 issue. “Nudging can work – but only as part of a package of measures. Government must show that it’s willing to step in with regulation and strategic leadership when necessary. Otherwise, it risks undoing all the recent good work we’ve seen happen in public health and sustainability.”


That’s why all eyes are on the government’s much-publicised Public Health Responsibility Deal – a series of pledges geared towards making the nation healthier. Initial pledges include reductions in salt content, removal of trans fats and calorie labelling out of home.


While there are some notable absentees, the list of signatories reads like a who’s who of the food industry. Phil Hooper, Sodexo’s corporate affairs director, has been an avid supporter from the outset. “Regulation can often be a cumbersome way of doing things, but what this deal does is look at best practice and enables the industry to embrace it,” he told Footprint at the launch. “What’s in the deal won’t come as a shock to many of us, as we’ve been working in some of these areas for a long time, but there are certainly some challenges in there.”


Eighteen months on he’s as convinced as ever that the approach is the right one – and not just because it’s preferable to “clunky legislation”. “Generally there seems to be more contact with government than there’s been in the past,” he explains. “What’s driven [health] up the agenda is that the government has looked at the problems around obesity and the costs of poor health to the health service and thought: ‘What can we do with industry to tackle this?’ They’ve looked at who is involved and how they affect people’s diets. Foodservice companies are a part of that – we are a big player.”


So far, the deal has over 370 “partners” (170 signed up at the start) including a good portion of those in foodservice. Hooper went through the figures at the end of 2012 and found that 64% of the catering sector market is signed up to the salt reduction pledges – the aim of getting to 87%. A report by Which? on the deal’s first birthday in the summer said progress on salt was encouraging, with most major companies having also removed trans fats from their products. Calorie labelling is proving more of a challenge. The likes of Pizza Express and Café Rouge, for example, have committed to salt and trans fats, but are not currently inclined to put calorie counts on their labels.


Research published by Allegra Strategies found that 31% of consumers would not be influenced by a calorie count when eating out. There is a danger that the concept of calorie labelling could go the way of traffic lights and GDAs, with opinions divided over the best option. This is where voluntary agreements can come unstuck.


However, Hooper notes that it is still early days for the deal and putting calories on menus is a fairly new concept. This is a work in progress, and in 2013 one of the areas that will require attention is how to get more smaller businesses involved. Many are struggling with the complicated monitoring required to measure themselves against the targets, so talks are going on about “localising” the deal, with councils helping local businesses to adopt some pledges, Hooper reveals. “This isn’t about creating a monster that no-one can deliver,” he adds.


Further reading:


Mindspace – influencing behaviour through public policy, Institute for Government


Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein


Food Ethics, spring 2011 issue


Foodservice Footprint, October 2012, page 12

Foodservice Footprint page15image44760 Nudge or be pushed Health and Vitality  Which? Tom Macmillan Sodexo Public Health Responsibility Deal Phil Hooper Food Ethics Council David Cameron Allegra Strategies