Would you offer nutritional information on your menu? With the government set to launch a voluntary scheme, Caterer last week hosted an online debate to see if there is a workable solution. Janie Stamford reports
The hospitality industry, by its very nature, is of course eager to meet the needs of its customers. But despite the research that suggests high consumer demand for nutritional labelling on menus, there is naturally some reticence towards an anticipated government proposal that all operators display this information voluntarily.
The concerns are legitimate. While chefs at fine-dining establishments balk at the potential restrictions to their creativity, standalone independent operators are checking their profit and loss accounts to see if there's really any room to make the additional investment required.
Chain operators with standardised menus that change less frequently are in the perfect position to adopt a point of sale menu labelling scheme, but unless their particular patrons call for it they would no doubt argue against adopting a policy dictated by government.
Contract caterers are ideally placed to observe consumer trends dictated by sales patterns rather than surveys. The reason healthier options have in recent years gained increased prevalence on their menus is because there is demand for it.
It's clear from the industry feedback that there is no all-purpose food labelling solution, but operators should demonstrate a willingness to make an effort that's appropriate to their market. This could be a menu section of healthy options in a caterer's B&I site or calorie labelling at Feng Sushi. Making a gesture with the voluntary code may keep mandatory regulation at bay.
COMMENTS FROM LIVE DEBATE
WILL YOU SIGN UP TO A VOLUNTARY SCHEME?
Silla Bjerrum, Feng Sushi We are not particularly interested, but we are having calorie information added to our menu shortly due to customer requests and the fact that our menu is in general very healthy.
Guest I think it gives a competitive edge to the ones that do inform clients of their food choices.
Mark I think it's worth making the point early on that when government feels an industry sector doesn't get behind a voluntary code of practice, it begins to start thinking about mandatory regulation.
Guest The UK needs to do this and stop using cost to avoid providing information that consumers should have access to as they do in places like New York, where restaurants seem to be thriving.
IS IT FOR EVERYONE?
Silla Bjerrum For a small standalone operation this may simply be costly and time consuming. For a healthy eating chain (casual) like ours it makes sense. The cost is £1,200 for all 100 menu items and then we need to have a quarterly update for a few hundred pounds.
Inga There has to be a line drawn. I agree that in fast food/casual dining/canteens this would largely be welcome by consumers. I don't think this would work in fine-dining restaurants.
Simon I think suppliers have a role to play as they can help some of us come up with calorie counted meals.
Richard Firth, Unilever Simon, I agree suppliers such as us have resource to help with some of the solutions.
FoodFan If you are dining out in a high-end restaurant it is normally for a special occasion. Why would you want to know the calories?
Guest It depends on the type of establishment. If I'm eating in the staff restaurant every day I'd like to know there is a healthy choice. When it comes to fine dining though, I'm not concerned.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO WORK?
Mark If it's voluntary you wouldn't have to go the whole hog. You could hive off a part of your menu for calorie- and fat-controlled dishes and label them up fully, but leave the rest as normal?
Guest We have a weekly fixed menu and so once a week we have a nutritionist analyse the recipes. She sometimes spends time in the kitchen to make sure the cooking practices match the recipes.
Guest The information should be visible next to the description or the price of the dish; otherwise it won't have any impact on the food choice of the customer.
Luci Daniels, Elior We tried having "healthy options" but the uptake was low. Instead we're trying to make all our food healthier. Calories is a good place to start. Keep it simple.
Sill Bjerrum Calorie counting alone will not make the nation slimmer. Low fat is also misleading.
Phil Calories, salt, fat, GM… we will need a book not a menu!
HAS THERE BEEN ENOUGH INDUSTRY CONSULTATION?
Richard Firth In short, no. There needs to be more industry discussion.
Grant H It will still be driven as a policy as we have far too much obesity in this country and the only way the government sees fit to reduce that is to legislate, not educate.
Shirley The responsibility of educating the public about eating healthily lies with the government. Why should the catering industry be penalised for people's ignorance? It has a hard enough time as it is.
Simon Government should show us its research. If there's a business case for doing this then it makes sense. We need help though, not a three-line whip.
Luci Daniels, Elior All government initiatives should be co-ordinated cross-department so we don't get overloaded. Change4Life is a good start.
Mikes6 This is an issue that has cropped up before during the 1980s and it was eventually considered unworkable. Who wants this information? The politicians shouting loudest are just blowing hot air because they can do nothing else, least of all spend more money on educating people about food, diet, exercise etc.
This issue revolves around ignorance about food. Bring back domestic science to the school curriculum - three hours a week, every week.
Kaz I don't know that the emphasis is on education - it's more about giving consumers the information they need to be able to make an informed choice.
Tractorjane I don't think menu labelling has to be over complicated. I was at Ragdale Hall health spa a while ago and was impressed by their simple approach to labelling each course with one, two or three houses depending on the calorific value of each dish. All staff were trained to talk through the details if diners wanted more information.
Listening and responding to your customers doesn't always have to be over engineering and cost a fortune.
Annie I guess any business that doesn't need any more customers may be able to afford to wait until it's made compulsory and may just ride the current storm.
Any others worth their salt (sorry) should think seriously about signing up to the voluntary code ASAP to keep on top of their game and retain respect and credibility…
Ignore the wishes of nearly 75% of potential customers if you dare!
Chair@LACA The school catering sector is already quite used to compiling menus giving dietary information for dishes being served. Since the introduction, by the previous government, of stringent nutrient standards for school food, it has been even more important to demonstrate to parents the considerable nutritional value of today's school meals and the contribution they can make to reducing obesity levels.
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