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Spotlight on feeding the public – Healthy Eating month

01 May 2008

The health of the nation has become a Government concern, but should the hospitality industry be responsible for re-educating consumers into eating healthily? In week one of our Healthy Eating Month we focus on feeding the public. Nic Paton reports

It's said that where America leads, the rest of us follow. So the fact that a law has just been passed in New York requiring chain restaurants to display calorie counts on their menus should perhaps fill UK caterers and restaurateurs with some trepidation. The city's initiative, which came after the New York State Restaurant Association lost a rearguard action against the new rule, means any chain with 15 or more outlets must display calorie contents on their menus, menu boards and food tags. It's a radical move but, in a country growing increasingly worried about the economic, social and health costs of rising obesity levels, has come in with barely a whimper.

So should UK chains be bracing themselves to be next? Certainly, the UK's obesity epidemic is not yet as serious as the USA's but, with an estimated two out of five adults overweight and a further one in five classed as obese - and this predicted to rise to a third of men and more than a quarter of women by 2010 - it's a problem the Government and the food industry can ill afford to ignore. In 2001, the influential House of Commons Health Select Committee estimated that obese people were costing the NHS £1b a year, while a report by former NatWest chief and government troubleshooter Sir Derek Wanless last year warned that failing to tackle obesity could even lead to the collapse of the health service.

The hospitality trade's role in exacerbating or improving the nation's poor diet has been under the spotlight for some time. Back in 2004, in its White Paper on public health, Choosing Better Health, the Government identified the food industry - retail and hospitality - as having a key role to play in promoting healthier eating and changing eating habits. Late last year, the Department of Health unveiled an action plan to improve the nutritional quality of food and the "nutritional care" being given to elderly people in hospitals and care homes. In January, the Government unveiled a £372m "obesity strategy" which had as one of its ambitions the development of a healthy food code of good practice to encourage the food industry to reduce its use of saturated fats, sugar and salt.

Closer to home, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been busy developing and promoting a "traffic light" labelling system - with green being healthiest - to encourage consumers to choose healthier foods. In March, Yo! Sushi became the first restaurant chain to adopt this system, producing a nutritional brochure designed to highlight to customers the nutritional value, fat, sugar and salt content of what they were eating. Many others are also acting unilaterally to source and produce healthier menus.

In fact, just as fair trading and sustainability have been hot topics for the past few years, the issue of how to offer healthier, more nutritious menus without compromising on quality or cost is rapidly working its way up the agenda, argues Hugo Miller-Brown, managing director of Seasoned Events, in-house caterer for London conference and events venue Vinopolis. The operator, for example, has a "Best of Borough Market" menu aimed at the corporate and conference market that includes an array of healthy, lighter options.

But the difficulty is that systems such as the FSA's traffic lights are much more aimed at retailers and packaged foods, says Miller-Brown. "If we produced, say, 1,000 ready meals of a prepackaged size, yes, we probably could do something around food labelling. But we provide a very bespoke product and, it'd be fair to say, don't cook the same menu twice," he points out.

The hospitality trade is engaging with the FSA in trying to hammer out the best form of oversight or best practice, stresses John Dyson, food and technical affairs adviser at the British Hospitality Association. "There have been reductions in fat and salt levels and many caterers are talking to their supply chain. But the big difference between catering and retail is that the labelling issue is completely different. So it needs a different approach," he argues.

To its credit, the FSA appears to have recognised the particular nuances of the hospitality industry, says spokesman Sean Whelan. "The traffic light approach was developed for the retail industry and though we've seen that it can be practical in some catering outlets, we realise there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach for what is a diverse sector," he says. "We're continuing our discussions with catering companies to identify practical approaches that will be workable for a wide range of companies."

In January, following talks with the FSA, the big five of contract catering - Compass, Sodexo, Aramark, Elior and BaxterStorey - along with suppliers Brakes and 3663 signed up to a series of commitments to provide healthier workplace meals, in particular to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fat levels.

This is just a first step, stresses Whelan. "We're now building on that progress by talking to the major companies in a number of different parts of the sector. This includes pub chains, quick-service restaurants, casual-dining chains and coffee and sandwich shops. We're looking to encourage a broad range of companies to get involved," he says. "We want to encourage companies to offer a greater range of healthier options and to make incremental changes that will make mainstream options healthier. We think companies of all types can contribute - by co-ordinated actions covering the ingredients they buy, kitchen practices and menu-planning, as well as the information they provide to their customers."

As eating out becomes more of an everyday activity rather than a once-in-a-while indulgence, restaurateurs and caterers must start taking more of a lead on healthier menus, agrees Colin Waine, chairman of the National Obesity Forum. Caterers cannot continue to hide behind the "customer knows best" argument, he stresses. "It's not about spoiling the pleasure of a nice meal. It's easy to include some options, perhaps a healthier starter or a low-fat chicken main or a sweet that's not loaded with saturated fats," he says. "Of course people are going to choose for themselves, but caterers need to give them other options."

The industry has a long way to go on children's food in particular, adds Carl May, co-founder of Catered4thekids, which assesses pub and restaurant food and lobbies to encourage healthier options. Too many pubs and restaurants still see children as a menu add-on who will be happy with unhealthy nuggets or fish shapes, says May, who is even considering launching his own range of foods to help raise awareness.

In February, the New Inn pub in St Owen's Cross, Hereford, became the first hospitality business to be accredited with Catered4thekids status. "What we do is basically the adult menu with smaller portions. We also offer healthier desserts and drinks. We're trying to move kids away from cola and lemonade," explains landlord and director Nigel Maud.

There is clearly demand, because this approach has led to a 20% uplift in sales in the past year, he adds, helped in part by advertising his accreditation. And intriguingly, it's more likely to be the adults than the kids who rebel against the healthy food. "The kids love these menus. The biggest issue is educating the adults. We had one family that walked out saying there were no nuggets on the menu and so what would their kid eat?" he says.

The big fast-food chains have made progress - though not enough - when it comes to offering healthier and low-fat options, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University. "The good news is that there has at least been an acknowledgement that there is a problem, an acknowledgement that as purveyors of food for the masses they have to be part of the solution," he points out.

But he concedes that there's a limit to what even operators of their size can do. "If the British public wants to eat sugary, fatty foods, even if McDonald's, Burger King or whoever provides low-salt, low-fat foods, the taste of the population is not being altered. What we need is a cultural transformation," he says.

And this is a real issue. Theme park operator Merlin Entertainments, which runs attractions including Madame Tussauds, Alton Towers and the London Dungeon, uses children's food and nutrition expert Annabel Karmel to create healthier children's options, offers fruit and vegetable snack pots and healthier lunchboxes. And, says Gary Henderson, head of group commercial development, makes hardly any money on it. "We sell around half a million children's meals, and chicken nuggets and fish bites are our two biggest sellers," he says. "Our healthy ranges make up less than 10% of our sales. We threw away about £75,000 worth of fruit and salad last year. When you talk to customers they say that if there's one day they're going to let them eat what they like, it's going to be today." So why persevere? "We want it on the shelf and are prepared to take it on the chin," Henderson says.

But with food prices rising, consumers tightening their belts and margins narrowing, whether caterers and restaurateurs can, or even should, be acting as some sort of nutrition head teacher is a moot point.

As Henderson puts it: "This is not something that's going to be solved by one attractions company. Yet I do believe that, as an industry, we should be leading the way on this. Yes, our business is leisure, fun and escapism, but we also have to accept that we have a role."

If you offer healthier options, make sure they don't compromise on taste, advises the Food Standards Agency

tips for marketing a healthier menu

The Food Standards Agency offers a wealth of online advice to caterers at www.food.gov.uk/healthiereating/healthycatering/

Tips include:

 If you offer a limited number of dishes, try making small changes across the board.

 Consider introducing and displaying a "healthier catering policy" or a general statement explaining your aims and/or what changes you've made.

 Make it clear these changes won't compromise on taste.

 If you offer a large choice of dishes, try introducing a few healthier options while leaving the regular dishes as they are.

 Be careful about labelling new dishes as "healthier options" as this can put people off. Instead, try "dish of the day" or promote their novelty value.

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