Caterers, restaurants and pub firms need to get on board with plans to reduce sugar on menus or face the prospect of further government action including possible legislation.
That's the warning from Public Health England as it gears up to set sugar reduction targets either later this month or at the start of April.
The move comes following the publication last year of the the government's Childhood Obesity Plan, which set out ambitions for take out 20% of sugar in food products.
Public Health England has been working with government to set targets for the amount of sugar to be reduced by 100g of product, as well as on calorie caps for specific single serving products. The four-year, category specific targets for nine initial categories of food will measure progress on the basis of reductions in the sales weighted average sugar content per 100g of food and drink, reductions in portion sizes so that these contain less sugar, or a clear sales shift towards lower sugar alternatives.
Public Health England's chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone told The Caterer that the catering industry needed to get its head around the forthcoming targets, and that it was not an excuse to say that eating out was a "treat" and that restaurants, pubs and caterers should therefore be exempt from making reductions to the sugar content in their food.
"Many families will have a pub meal once a week. That becomes part of this because it is no longer a treat. The data says it has become an everyday thing. We are doing it frequently and 20% of calories on average are consumed out of the home or on food on the go. Businesses will say ‘families will only eat in our restaurants on average three times a year'. But that is what everyone is saying, so it all adds up to an awful lot. The average man is consuming 300 calories a day more than he needs and the average woman 200. That is like a small meal extra a day. You can't run that off. The food industry has responsibility in this area and it is about more than providing a couple of healthy choices on the menu," she said.
While adherence to the targets will not be enforced, she also warned that caterers would have to take them seriously or face the prospect of possible further action. "Caterers have got two control points: what they are making and what they are buying in," she said. "In the Childhood Obesity Plan, we already have the sugar levy and that is being imposed on the sugary drinks industry so that will knock through and affect caterers because they sell sugary drinks. The plan says that if the situation doesn't improve then other levers will be considered. I can't tell you what those other levers are but that is quite straightforward government code really."
Tedstone said that caterers needed to look not just at the products they were buying in to ensure that they contained less sugar, but also at reducing portion sizes on desserts and other sweet items, as well as taking sugar out of recipes.
She also refuted the suggestion that extra pressures on hospitality businesses over the issue of sugar would be unwelcome in the face of so many other government initiatives affecting the industry, including the revaluation of business rates, the National Living Wage, and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, warning that the issue of excess sugar in the nation's diet was too important to ignore.
"The NHS is being crippled by many things such as the ageing population but the cost of obesity is big on that. Around 10% of NHS costs are already going on type II diabetes. The biggest driver of type II diabetes is obesity. As a society we can't duck this," Tedstone asserted.
"Industry has got pressures. You can't deny that but we can't just wait for the economy to settle down. And actually some of this is a win-win because some of this is about having smaller portions, not selling so much, so there are potential cost savings for businesses in this. Solutions don't have to be complicated."
Tedstone said Public Health England had already started speaking to caterers, including pub groups and cafe chains about the measures and that they had "different views" on the matter.
She accepted that fierce competition in the restaurant and pub market meant that operators might be reluctant to be the first to reduce portion sizes but that they would need to work together to achieve it.
"Manufacturers and retailers have now got their heads around it and they are aware that it has to be driven forward. There is always a tension that you wait for someone else to do it and nobody does it," she said. "There's that competitive thing but retailers and manufacturers have got through that and their trade bodies have helped them get through that. Caterers and the out of home sector have not got to a position where they can see that. My sense is they are still nervous about who is the first. We are trying to get people to see that government has said well actually there are other levers. Somebody needs to be the first.
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