Contract caterers are leading the way in the fight against obesity. Chris Druce reports
In January 2008, the big five contract caterers signed a groundbreaking agreement with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on healthy eating in the workplace. The FSA this week issued an official update on the scheme, proclaiming that "millions of employees across the UK are now enjoying healthier workplace meals".
It is a bold claim, but, just over a year after the deal that saw Compass, Sodexo, Aramark, Elior and BaxterStorey and suppliers Brakes and 3663 First for Foodservice publish a series of healthy eating commitments to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fat levels in everyday dishes in the workplace, the FSA's ‘health by stealth' approach would seem to be one of those rarest of government initiatives a success.
Evidence for this comes with how quickly the scheme has grown it now includes 12 caterers. Additions include Charlton House, Artizian, Autograph, Harbour & Jones, ISS Eaton, ISS Mediclean and 7 Day Catering, which means the FSA can now claim coverage of 85% of the workplace contract catering market.
Addressing obesity With a record 1.62b meals served by contract caterers last year (source: British Hospitality Association), the FSA believes the scheme will go at least some way to addressing the UK's growing obesity problem.
Rosemary Hignett, the FSA's head of nutrition, said: "Around 10% of all meals eaten out of the home are in a workplace catering restaurant, so this will help deliver considerable public health benefits."
With the big five's initial commitments met, new targets in place for 2009 (see box) and the pub, fast food and coffee shop sectors coming on board, things are moving along nicely, according to Noel Mahony, managing director at BaxterStorey.
"I have not identified any sign of slowdown among the programme's members: this scheme has real momentum and a long way to run," he said.
Chris Piper, commercial director at Artizian, said the scheme provides a forum for caterers to come together, put aside rivalries, and discuss the health issues affecting British consumers.
"As a business it's been useful in boosting our profile and showing that it's not just the larger players that are engaged with this issue," he added.
Many of the changes made have themselves been simple, such as increasing the number of sites that feature nutritionally balanced menus, while ensuring chefs and managers follow recommended cooking and purchasing practices.
Others have been far more complex, such as working with suppliers such as Brakes and 3663 First for Foodservice to review the nutrient content of thousands of products on buying lists and selecting those with lower levels of saturated fat, salt or sugar.
Caterers have also developed new menus and healthier recipes, often making the original dish healthier without obvious changes (hence the health by stealth tag), as well as running healthy eating promotions.
Mahony admitted that he was initially sceptical that the healthy eating message would be taken up by customers at traditional blue-collar manufacturing sites. But he has been amazed at the boom in salad and low-salt meal sales at those sites, which he attributes to the focus of resources, sharing of best practice and commitment the FSA's initiative has brought.
Compass, ISS Mediclean, 7 Day Catering and Sodexo are also working with the FSA on its calorie menu labelling trial, which has been opposed by the BHA, but is ultimately complementary to the healthier workplace meals initiative.
This year has seen both 7 Day Catering and Harbour & Jones join the scheme, with the latter due to publish its first set of commitments this week.
Resource issue Not everyone has remained involved, however. Accent Catering which joined the scheme last summer has, at least for now, parted ways with the FSA.
Gordon Haggarty, managing director of Accent Catering, said: "We feel we are already moving in the same direction on healthy eating as the FSA but, for us as a small business, it became a resource issue. We also felt we didn't want to be involved if we were merely paying lip service."
Although the scheme is still developing and can never provide like-for-like comparatives due to the different individual commitments, Mahony fully endorses the drive the initiative has provided for contract caterers and is proud that the sector is, for once, leading the retailers on the high street.
"The high street is ultimately where we all compete as contract caterers, so we need to make sure we are offering as much, if not more, nutritional information and choice to consumers," he said.
Chris Towler, chef director at ISS Eaton, conceded the scheme was not without its challenges. He said part of his battle with the FSA had been working with them to help the organisation understand the need to make sure the healthier eating message that went out to customers remained a commercial edge. "In short, when you're selling healthier food to the public you need to be more fluffy in the style of message you adopt to get them to respond."
Targets for 2009
- Compass will focus on further salt and saturated fat reductions, chef training and healthy eating promotions
- Elior has pledged to implement its Balance programme in 60% of its 870 sites (up from 50% at the end of 2008)
- BaxterStorey will roll out its Better Balance Guide to all of its 400-plus sites
- Sodexo has set itself new standards for procurement, and is developing new standardised healthy dishes. It will also continue chef training
- 3663 will continue revising its product range and extending its range of client support services
- Brakes will continue to reduce salt (70% of its products also now conform to the standards) along with further staff training and client support.
By Chris Druce
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