Mar 15, 2012
Tim Lester

High street outlets ignoring guidelines on providing calorie information

Major high street food outlets such as Costa Coffee, Pizza Express and Garfunkels have shunned a major government initiative to reduce obesity by telling diners how many calories their products contain.

A host of well-known food and drink producers and retailers have refused to join what ministers billed as a significant drive by such businesses to help consumers lead healthier lives by reducing salt in their goods, ending the use of trans fats and publishing calorie counts.

Popular chains such as Cafe Rouge and Caffe Nero, budget supermarkets Lidl and Iceland and the makers of Birds Eye fish fingers are also among those who have not agreed to honour at least one of three pledges made health secretary Andrew Lansley when he unveiled his public health responsibility deal a year ago.

The non co-operation is disclosed in a new report by the consumer group Which?, which claims that the first year of Lansley’s controversial system of relying on voluntary agreements with the food and drink industry, rather than regulation, to improve public health has been a failure.

Just two of Britain’s top 10 restaurant chains – Harvester and JD Wetherspoon – have agreed to introduce calorie counts for their products, Which? found. The others – including Pizza Express, Ask, Cafe Rouge, Garfunkels, Beefeater and Prezzo – have not followed suit.

Similarly, just two of the five most popular chains of coffee shops have signed that pledge (Starbucks and Marks and Spencer’s cafe), while the others – Costa Coffee, the largest chain; Caffe Nero and Cafe Ritazza – have chosen not to participate.

Which? found “good progress” had been made in firms committing to reducing the amount of salt in their products, with Costa, EAT, Strada, Pizza Express and JD Wetherspoon among those agreeing. However, Iceland as well as Findus, Princes and Birds Eye have not.

While most major firms have removed or agreed to remove trans fats from their foods – the third of the responsibility deal’s initial three pledges – Lidl and Caffe Nero have not.

“We have the worst obesity rates in Europe and diet-related diseases, like heart disease and stroke, are blighting the public’s health. Our audit of progress made under the government’s responsibility deal has shown the current approach is overly reliant on vague voluntary promises by the food industry. This has so far failed to bring about change on anything like the scale needed,” said Richard Lloyd, the group’s executive director.

“If food companies don’t agree to help people eat more healthily then we must see legislation to force them to do so for the sake of the health of the nation,” he added.

Groups advocating tougher policies to combat overeating, such as the National Obesity Forum, endorsed the warning from Which? that too little had been achieved so far. “By not taking a tougher stance, the government continues to let our most prominent food manufacturers and retailers off the hook. If this initiative is to shake off its ‘irresponsibility deal’ moniker, the government is going to have to develop sticks to go with the carrots it is handing out,” said Children’s Food Campaign co-ordinator Malcolm Clark.

Labour’s Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister, said: “You cannot expect big business, which makes millions every year by marketing sugary, fatty and unhealthy foods to willingly limit its own profiteering.”

But the Department of Health said the responsibility deal had secured pledges that meant more than 70% of fast food and takeaway meals sold on the high street will have their calorific content displayed, thanks to agreements with firms such as McDonald’s, Pret a Manger, Yo! Sushi and Subway.

The deal’s first year has “delivered results”, Lansley said. “We see the results in our everyday lives – calorie information is on our high street, less salt is in the food we buy and artificial trans fats are being taken out of food. This is helping people around the country to lead healthier lives. We know this is an ambitious challenge but our successes so far clearly demonstrate it works.”

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, backed Lansley. “Despite the criticism from Which?, the responsibility deal’s voluntary approach has achieved, in just one year, some considerable progress. Over 70% of the retail market and 47% of the major high street and contract caterers have committed to further reductions in salt in over 80 categories of food, with FDF members making up nearly 30% of signatories,” said Terry Jones, its director of communications.

“Furthermore 90 companies have signed up to the pledge to remove artificial trans fats, a quarter of whom are FDF members, which in total represents 69% of the retail market.”

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