Foodservice and UK Gov to work together to offer healthier choices

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 8th July 2008

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for stronger partnerships between Government and the food services industry to help enable consumers to make healthier choices when eating out of the home.

A report published yesterday by the Cabinet Office’s Strategy Unit, ‘Food Matters – Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century’, sets out Government aims to better integrate the different elements of the food system and its impact economically, socially and environmentally; as well as working with the public, food chain businesses, other stakeholders and other tiers of government to put a new food policy framework in place.

Dame Deirdre Hutton, Chair of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), outlined the current work done by the FSA with the catering sector and future plans to encourage this part of the industry to help consumers eat more healthily and make informed choices out of home.

“We welcome this important report, which emphasises how critical our work is with both the retailers and the eating out of home marketplace,” she said. “We are used to seeing nutritional information in supermarkets and we would like to enable people to make the same informed choices when they eat out as well. This information is not universally available at present and as people tend to eat out more regularly now, we want to encourage catering businesses to do more to help their customers make healthier choices.”

The report also established a need not only to provide greater nutritional information but also to improve the standard of food. “…it’s about more than just providing information – we’re working with major contract caterers, restaurant, pub and sandwich chains to encourage them to offer a wider range of great tasting healthier options including looking at the ingredients they buy and the way they prepare their meals,” Dame Hutton added. “We need to find something to suit what is a very diverse sector and that provides people with a simple and effective way to understand what is in their food and which are the healthier options.”

The FSA is expanding its work with the food service sector and consumers to find out what information people would find helpful when they eat out.

According to the British Hospitality Association (BHA) UK consumers are eating out more frequently, the catering sector has seen its sales figures triple between 1981 and 2005, while 27% of household expenditure on food is spent on eating out (DEFRA 2006 Family Food survey indicates 32%). In addition, over 1 billion meals each year are provided by schools, hospitals and other parts of the public sector, according to BHA trends and statistics.

The foods consumers eat out of home are, on average, higher in fat, saturates, salt and sugar than the foods they eat at home. A recent FSA snapshot survey found:

* 85% of people agreed with the statement that restaurants, pubs and cafes have a responsibility to make it clear what is in the food they serve.
* In addition, when asked where respondents would expect to see nutritional information for it to be most useful, 81% of people said they would like
to see it at the point when they order food, such as on the menu in a restaurant, or visible when they are buying a sandwich or a muffin in a coffee shop or cafe.
* In contrast, only 2% of respondents said they would find it useful on company websites.

Some parts of the catering sector are doing good work and providing information about the nutritional content of their food, according to the FSA. However, they believe more progress could be made in this area so that people have honest information at their fingertips to make informed decisions when they eat out.

The UK report follows last month’s introduction of new laws in New York City, which require chain restaurants with 15 or more outlets to display calorie contents on menus, menu boards or food tags. The move was made to fight the increasing obesity problem, but has been met with some disapproval from food retailers with the National Restaurant Association currently appealing against the legislation. Similar legislation is to come into force in California, although the California Restaurant Association has filed a lawsuit to overturn the menu labeling rules.

In the UK, the Government is unlikely to tread a similar path with legislation as they believe their voluntary approach with industry on work such as salt reformulation has indicated that the industry is keen to support health initiatives without the need for it to be forced upon them. The Australian Government is also considering new initiatives to tackle obesity with traffic light nutritional labelling and tougher rules on junk food advertising floated as potential strategies.

The full extent of the possible changes will be revealed later this year when the National Preventative Health Taskforce provides recommendations to the Government, although a full strategy will not be in place until the middle of next year.

“We’ve taken steps to make obesity a national health priority. We’re investing in community level initiatives,” Health Minister Nicola Roxon said. “We expect to have a full comprehensive strategy in place by the middle of next year.”