Take action or face legislation

PROFESSOR SUSAN JEBB, chair of the Responsibility Deal’s Food Network, prefers voluntary action but hasn’t  ruled out legislation


The Responsibility Deal annual updates were published end of last month. Are we making progress?


Yes, without doubt. This year’s annual returns include actions and commitments that I do not believe we would have seen without the sustained call to action that the Responsibility Deal provides. I am continually struck by the progressive approach of some companies in England relative to the action we see globally. However, far from making me feel satisfied with what we are achieving I am frustrated that we are not seeing stronger global action which would in turn stimulate further and faster change in England.


Does some of the engagement remain disappointing?


I always aspire to see more change and faster and I know how far away we still are from reaching the public health dietary goals. But this is a marathon not a sprint and we need to continually build on our progress. In general terms the food businesses predominately providing food for “in home” consumption have made more progress than out of home companies whether in relation to calories, saturated fat or salt.


However, I have been impressed by some of the work being done by the contract caterers and I think this shows what that sector can achieve. All businesses have a responsibility to offer their customers choices consistent with dietary recommendations and to provide sufficient information for customers to make an informed choice. It seems to me that this should be a core principle and that progressive food businesses will want to go further by making it easier for their customers to meet their aspirations for a healthy diet.


We have seen some star players on salt but this pledge seems to polarise the sector?


The UK has made tremendous progress on salt with work initiated by the Food Standards Agency and vigorously pursued by the Responsibility Deal with the setting of the 2012 salt targets and new targets for 2017. Manufacturers and retailers have made the major contribution to the 15% decrease we have seen in salt intake per person.


But there is a growing divide between the lower salt content in food we consume at home and the high levels found in takeaway food, high street chains and restaurants. This cannot continue. Excess salt is contributing to thousands of unnecessary early deaths from strokes and heart attacks and is delaying the shift in the nations taste preferences towards lower salt options. Restaurants told us that the salt targets for individual items were impractical in many fast food or restaurant settings and so we have introduced maximum per serving salt targets for 10 popular items plus children’s meals. I hope that the industry will commit to using these benchmarks and in parallel work to cut salt levels across the rest of their menu.


The foodservice sector had made great strides on certain pledges though, hasn’t it?


The work on calorie labeling on menus has been fantastic. Some 70% of high street chains now have calorie labeling in place and the feedback from customers is incredibly positive. Eating out accounts for one in six meals. It’s no longer an occasional treat, it’s a routine eating occasion. People are used to seeing nutritional labelling in the supermarkets and now they want to make informed choices about their lunchtime choices.


How was the calorie reduction tool, launched in April, received by industry?


Many companies, especially those new to the Responsibility Deal, ask me what makes a good pledge and I hope this toolkit provides useful insights to frame really strong and meaningful public health pledges. It helps to be specific about what you will do and to provide some measurements of the impact this will make. We developed the toolkit in collaboration with food businesses and public health groups and so far it has been well received. But the real test is whether it inspires companies to make new far-reaching pledges with measurable impact on purchasing decisions or consumption patterns.


You are currently talking with industry about framing business action on a responsible promotion pledge. Is this advancing well?


I am delighted to see Lidl and Tesco commit to checkouts free from sweets and confectionery. Within other pledges there are also some important commitments that aim to use the promotional resource of a company to support healthier food choices, such as additional loyalty card points for Subway customers choosing from their ‘low fat’ range, but these are exceptions rather than a broad commitment by the food industry.


Just about every food business sells a range of foods, some of which are healthier than others. Any business which has a genuine commitment to support consumers to choose a healthier diet ought to be actively considering the balance of their promotional activity. I hope it is just a matter of time before we see more businesses stepping up to their responsibilities in relation to their promotional activities. This is the next big challenge we have to crack.


Are you seeing enough engagement from catering colleges?


I completely accept that we need to train the next generation of chefs and caterers that healthy eating is consistent with providing a positive customer experience and developing a profitable business and we probably haven’t invested as much in this area as we might, if time and resources were unlimited. However, we are working with the BNF [British Nutrition Foundation] and the BHA to develop new training materials or chefs. But this should not be left to government alone. Food businesses need to educate and nurture talent if they are to sustain their businesses into the future.


The legislation issue still looms. If we cannot get the traction, are you going to have to legislate?


I am a great believer that we can achieve more through voluntary action than legislation because companies that recognise the importance of this agenda will generally go further and faster than if they are simply required to meet a minimum mandatory standard. It is not my first choice, but we need to face up to the huge burden of ill health which is caused by a poor diet and take proportionate action to improve the nation’s diet. When progress through the Responsibility Deal is slow it makes sense to consider other options too.


Health by stealth surely still remains a sensible option?


Of course, we need to promote the best products, eliminate the worst and make the rest as good as they can be. Health by stealth has brought huge dividends in relation to salt and we can also make progress to reduce saturated fat and cut calories through reductions in fat and sugar. But reformulation is unlikely to be sufficient to bring about the scale of change required to meet public health goals. We need to encourage specific changes in consumer behaviour and that is likely to require a broader portfolio of policies.