A big week for food policy and its implications for food businesses

It’s been a big week for food in the UK, with both the government’s announcement on tackling obesity, and now the National Food Strategy’s first recommendations being submitted to the government (although the National Food Strategy relates to England only).  Both arguably place affordable, accessible and healthy food at the centre of a response to Covid-19, with the National Food Strategy due to make wider food system recommendations that include environmental issues in early 2021.  Here are the areas is where the business sector might want to take note: 


Obesity strategy in response to Covid-19: 

  • The government’s obesity strategy aims to end advertising of food high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS)  before the 9pm watershed on television and online. While parts of the advertising industry may squeal at some of this, the longerterm impacts will probably be felt within food manufacturers, retailers and restaurant chains who earn a high proportion of their revenues from these less unhealthy foods.  All the more reason for these companies to set clear targets on shifting their sales towards quantifiably healthy food.  You can see which of the UK-operating supermarkets, contract caterers and restaurant chains are doing this (or not) in our Plating Up Progress 2020 dashboard where the first metric we use in our company assessments is related  directly to this. 
  • There is also a plan to make calorie labelling mandatory on menus within the hospitality sector which, again, some in the industry are squealing at, but in short it is hoped that this will be a way of forcing companies to be transparent in their menus and reformulate.  Calorie counting is not the silver bullet, but broadly seen as a step in the right direction.  Again, see our dashboard for the companies we find to be already moving towards clear and intuitive nutritional labelling (note: it is no longer good enough to have an obscure web page hidden away with some undecipherable nutritional information).  You can compare the quick service chains, the contract caterers and the casual dining chains on our sector specific dashboards. 
  • A strong recommendation is made for restrictions on promotions for HFSS foods (including at pointofsale and buy-one-get-one-free).  Supermarkets without clear strategies, policies and targets to shift sales promotions away from unhealthy food are more likely to fall foul of this. 
  • Confusingly, the obesity strategy seems at odds with another food-related Covid response from the government, the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which is essentially offering discounts on restaurant food and soft drinks irrespective of their nutritional value and calorie content.  Quick service restaurant chains have typically been quick themselves to register for the scheme and, again, our Plating Up Progress dashboard shows that very few of them are making healthy food a key strategic part of their menus, beyond tweaking some of the sugar and salt levels. 

National Food Strategy recommendations in response to Covid-19: 

  • The report recommends an increase in Free School Meals eligibility, which will probably impact contract caterers (when schools go back) although there are no obvious direct risks for the sector.  The biggest opportunity is for contract caterers to make the provision of healthy and sustainable food the bedrock of their service offering so they can show that all meals (including Free School Meals) are healthy.  See our sector specific analysis in our dashboard here. 
  • The report also recommends an increase in Healthy Start eligibility in supermarkets.  Two retailers (Coop and Waitrose) provisionally committing to ensure free fruit and vegetables are part of this, with other supermarkets and convenience stores reportedly keen to engage on this as well.  See which supermarkets already have targets for sales of fruit and vegetables here. 
  • While the National Food Strategy will be making recommendations that include environmental impacts in early 2021, it does make a recommendation that trade tariffs take into account food production standards (with animal welfare and deforestation used as examples).  Should this become a reality, UK-operating food companies heavily reliant on certain commodities or those with no real disclosure on where they source their food and how that food is produced, could be at greater risk of seeing supply and price issues impact their business models.  In our 2020 dashboard we specifically look at whether companies have data on how their food is being produced, how much comes from water scare regions, what deforestation risk they are exposed to, and their animal rights credentials.  All of these are issues are potentially relevant and could be impacted through future trade agreements  as recommended by the National Food Strategy. 

In short, food businesses with future-fit strategies, policies and targets should have little to fear and can embrace these changes.  Those planning on business as usual might need to take stock. 

View our COVID-19 tracker in full.