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Responsible hospitality – Deal or no deal?

13 September 2012
Responsible hospitality – Deal or no deal?

One year after the implementation of the Public Health Responsibility Deal is the Government satisfied the initative is doing enough to improve public health, or can the industry expect legislation to force the issue? Siobhan O'Neill reports

In March 2011, with no small amount of flourish, former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and the Department of Health (DoH) unveiled the Public Health Responsibility Deal. Taking over the reins from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) after several years of work, the DoH had decided to push forward on a number of health "pledges" aimed at getting the nation to eat more healthily, drink less, be more active and have healthier working lifestyles - and they wanted big-name household brands to commit to these pledges.

The pledges came into force in September 2011 and, a year on, the question is: have they done enough to appease the health lobby? While a number of contract caterers, supermarkets, manufacturers and alcohol industry names jumped on board - and many had already been working with the FSA - high-street brands and restaurant chains are conspicuous by their absence.

Focusing on business
The DoH also appears to have gone rather quiet on the subject. So has the initiative stalled? Are companies still actively - but stealthily - attempting to change eating and drinking habits, or have they silently gone back to focusing on their businesses during the recession?

One man who thinks the Responsibility Deal is "a pantomime" is Prof Simon Capewell, an epidemiologist and leading expert on the links between obesity and heart disease. He was a member of Lansley's Public Health Commission, but in a recent interview for The Independent he strongly criticised the Responsibility Deal, and Lansley, accusing him of "a gross dereliction of duty".

In particular, Capewell feels the DoH's approach of working with the food and drink industry on a number of voluntary agreements is a waste of time and that real change can only be achieved through legislation. In The Independent he said: "It is breathtaking that when deciding on public health policy in relation to food you should be sitting around the table with the very people who make large amounts of money from selling this stuff."

And in November 2011 the House of Commons Health Select Committee conducted a review of the Government's health strategies and rather damningly concluded: "We do not oppose the exploration of innovative techniques such as ‘nudging' where it can be shown, following proper evaluation, to be an effective way of delivering policy objectives. The committee were, however, unconvinced that the new Responsibility Deal will be effective in resolving issues such as obesity and alcohol abuse and expect the Department of Health to set out clearly how progress will be monitored and tougher regulation applied if necessary. Partnership with commercial organisations has a place in health improvement. However, those with a financial interest must not be allowed to set the agenda for health improvement."

Early adopters
So where does that leave the many early adopters of the Deal who have been working diligently for more than a year to meet their targets? Has the DoH forgotten them? And should they expect the legislative axe to fall any time soon?

Unsurprisingly, the DoH does not agree with Capewell. Fearing perhaps that a more overt presence might spook the public or trigger further accusations of a "nanny state" the Responsibility Deal team has preferred instead to work behind the scenes - often on a one-to-one basis with its partners - to effect a slow and steady change.

A spokesman explains: "By working in voluntary partnership the Responsibility Deal doesn't tie industry up in red tape but is delivering far more action - faster than before - and more than could have been achieved through regulation in the same time.

"We have started to see the benefits in our everyday lives - calorie information on high-street menus, less salt and reduced calories in foods, and artificial trans fats are being removed. Our successes in the first year clearly show the Deal is working."

The team has been steadily signing up more partners - 415 now, more than double those that were on board when the Deal was first announced - and they believe that this snowball effect is what will prove to have the most impact. "Improving public health will always be the cumulative effect of sustained collective activity over time. There is no silver bullet," the spokesman adds. "The Deal shows a way of working that delivers real benefits for public health in areas that only industry can take action and legislation could not achieve."

John Bennett, co-chief executive at caterer BaxterStorey, agrees. "When this came out we wondered whether this would mean more legislation," he says. Worried that strict regulation and controlling of food measurements was the antithesis of the company's ethos, he and BaxterStorey chairman Alastair Storey met with a DoH minister. "The feedback we got was very much the opposite," he says. "The words used were, ‘This is light-touch, it's informal, it's about educating, it's not about enforcing and regulating,' and that really gave us comfort."

Great strides
BaxterStorey has embraced the Deal and is making great strides: removing trans fats by working with those in the supply chain; working towards a 15% salt reduction by training chefs to use less; reformulation of dishes; and also, where appropriate, taking salt shakers off tables. "We're a guest in the client's house so we've got to work with them to get the solution," says Bennett. "In Sainsbury's, for instance, they've signed up for the Responsibility Deal so we've taken salt off all the tables in their restaurants."

Initiatives on salt are one of the key pledges that many in the industry signed up to, and the DoH is happy that improvements are being made. Some 1.5g of salt has been removed from daily diets since 2004 and 77 companies are striving to reduce that further. More salt pledges have been added, and the DoH's 2011 urinary sodium survey showed that we are eating 15% less salt than 10 years ago.

As well as trying to encourage healthier lifestyles and increase exercise, the pledges commit retailers, manufacturers and restaurateurs to remove trans fatty acids, reduce calories, improve the labelling of alcohol units and remove one billion units of alcohol from the marketplace by promoting lower-alcohol brands and removing super-strength beers from the shelves. As well as reformulating food and drink to be healthier, there is also a drive towards better labelling, including publishing calories to help consumers make informed decisions.

Calories on menus

Although fast-food chains including Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonald's all committed to displaying calories on menus, many high-street chains are notable by their absence from the Deal. Key exceptions are Harvester, part of the Mitchells & Butlers stable, and lunch chain Pret A Manger (see below).

Both companies feel it has been a positive experience for them. "Harvester believes that placing calories on menus has given customers a sense of increased flexibility and choice," says company nutritionist Philippa Wallis. "It's about increasing transparency and putting the customer in control. And we know that, on balance, Harvester customers are in favour of calories on the menu and those who are interested find it of genuine value."

Bennett says that removing trans fats and reducing salt led BaxterStorey to look at how it works in a different way and consider how the business should shape itself for the future. "We discussed it in a board meeting: ‘What does it mean to us?'" he adds. "Everyone's view on healthy eating was very different, but everyone agreed that choice for the customer was essential. If you're not offering the widest availability of choice, then you're not being commercial and driving the opportunity to optimise participation in the restaurant.

"From our point of view it's driven us to look further than the original commitments. As a customer of high-street food chains I would rather go in there when I know what I'm eating. Hopefully, the growing number of companies involved will help drive behaviour and that will lead other companies to think, ‘Actually, we need to get on this bandwagon, otherwise we're going to get left behind.'"


Responsibility Deal pledges

â- To remove artificial trans fats by the end of 2011.
â- To introduce calorie labelling on standard dishes.
â- To achieve clear unit labelling on more than 80% of alcohol by 2013.
â- To increase physical activity through workplace initiatives.
â- To improve workplace health - by signing up employers who will demonstrate commitment to, and can play an important role in, delivering healthy messages to their employees and subsequently improving public health.
â- To raise awareness of the unit content of alcoholic drinks and explore, together with health bodies, how messages around drinking guidelines and the associated health harms might be communicated.


Four-part pledge series
In a four-part series over the coming weeks we will explain how operators are implementing the challenges. Taking each pledge individually, we will highlight case studies of operators successfully tacking the pledges and explain how best to undertake the initiatives at your business.

The series will include â- Calorie labelling - 21 September
â- Salt reduction - 5 October
â- Trans fat removal - 19 October
â- Alcohol content labelling in the on-trade - 2 November


Molson Coors signs up
Molson Coors says that it already exceeds the alcohol labelling standard across 95% of its portfolio and has signed up to an industry-wide commitment of seven alcohol pledges, including labelling, awareness of units and unit reduction, as well as helping to tackle under-age sales, supporting the charity Drinkaware, and making some changes to the way alcohol is advertised and marketed.

"We have a wealth of recent experience in alcohol reduction through the development of Carling C2 and Carling Zest, which taught us a great deal about brewing lower-strength products that taste as good or better than many higher-strength beers," explains director of corporate affairs Scott Wilson. "The reality is that any successful low-alcohol product has to stand up as a great drink in its own right."

There is evidence of commitment across the industry - both among producers and retailers - with momentum being driven by consumers as much as the Responsibility Deal itself.

"We feel the most important step now is to make good on the commitments that have already been made," Wilson adds. "These are weighty pledges which will grow as more organisations get involved and show their leadership through tangible action."


Counting calories at Pret

Pret A Manger director of food Caroline Cromar says the business was apprehensive about how customers would respond to the inclusion of calories on products, but it has been a positive step. "Not all our food is that virtuous," she admits. "But generally customers have responded really well. We didn't see any drop-off in sales from doing it."

But the company has noticed a change in customer behaviour: those who enjoy the higher-calorie foods still eat them, but those who were choosing mid-calorie-range sandwiches are now taking healthier options. "Our top sellers are still our BLT and similar sandwiches, but the lighter categories, like fruit, wraps and salads, they've been huge growth areas for us in the last year," Cromar says.

Seeing the Responsibility Deal as an opportunity rather than an obstacle is key, and Cromar would like to see more high-street brands following suit. "I do think companies in the casual-dining sector, where it's now commonplace for people to be eating outside the home, should be acting a bit more responsibly," she says.


Compass cuts the calories

Catering giant Compass signed up to all of the original collective pledges outlined by the DOH's high level steering groups the Food Network and the Health in the Workplace Network. In addition, it signed up to the calorie-reduction pledge that was introduced in March.

Mick Hickman (pictured), food service director, Compass Group UK & Ireland, explains: "We have successfully removed artificial trans fats from the food we serve and are well on track to meet the salt-reduction targets set. Thousands of recipes have been nutritionally analysed and we are continuing to roll out GDA [guideline daily allowance] labelling across all of our business sectors. We have promised to reformulate over 5,000 of our standard recipes, reducing the calorie content in these dishes by up to 10%."

It has also introduced a number of health and wellbeing initiatives this year. Almost eight tonnes of salt has been sifted out of the business by a reduction in the size of Compass's salt sachets, and it has adapted many core recipes to replace butter with Flora Buttery.

"This will enable the business to eliminate up to 240 million calories and almost 100 tonnes of saturated fat," Hickman adds. "We do believe that caterers have a responsibility to provide this informed choice and we are pleased to see that a number of other caterers have signed up to some of the pledges."

Molson Coors signs up
Molson Coors says that it already exceeds the alcohol labelling standard across 95% of its portfolio and has signed its name to a pledge that makes this an industry-wide commitment. It signed up to seven alcohol pledges, including labelling, awareness of units and unit reduction, as well as helping to tackle under-age sales, supporting the charity Drinkaware, and making some changes to the way alcohol is advertised and marketed.

"We have a wealth of recent experience in alcohol reduction through the development of Carling C2 and Carling Zest, which taught us a great deal about brewing lower-strength products that taste as good or better than many higher-strength beers," explains director of corporate affairs Scott Wilson. "The reality is that any successful low-alcohol product has to stand up as a great drink in its own right, regardless of the abv it's produced to."

There is a strong wave of commitment across the industry - both among producers and retailers - with momentum being driven by consumers as much as the Responsibility Deal itself.

"We feel the most important step now is to make good on the commitments that have already been made," Wilson adds. "These are weighty pledges which will grow as more organisations get involved and show their leadership through tangible action."


Sponsor's comment

"Since its launch, there's been a lot of discussion, both positive and negative, around the Responsibility Deal and its impact on both the industry and consumers. What's clear to us is that businesses have started to prioritise health, and inroads are being made into tackling the health of the nation.

"Currently signed up to four of the five food pledges, we're not only improving the way we work, we're also helping our customers to meet their pledges. Compass Group recently worked with our team of expert chefs and nutritionists to devise a bank of recipes using Flora Buttery instead of butter, which will save 240 million calories and 100 tonnes of saturated fat - the equivalent weight of a blue whale!"

Tracey Rogers, managing director, Unilever Food Solutions

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