Hot Topic: Portion Size Matters

In spite of reformulating products, cutting down on salt and introducing clearer labels, the food and drinks industry is still being blamed for Britain’s obesity.

The food industry is warned: ‘If you don’t act, the EU will’

There’s a public health plea for no more ‘token gestures’

And Ketchum Bites asks, is regulation the way to wage war on obesity?

Senior figures in the trade have been called to a government briefing on July 2, 2013 about tackling the crisis. It’s being chaired by Dr Susan Jebb, head of diet and population health at the Medical Research Council and chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network.

‘Increase ambition’

Dr Jebb wants manufacturers, retailers and caterers to “increase the ambition of Responsibility Deal pledges.” This is code for an instruction to cut calories in the portions of food, and to reduce the use of fat.

But there’s tension within the food industry about who’s pulling their weight and who’s not.

Portioning blame

More than 130 food companies, including PepsiCo and Coca Cola, Unilever and McDonald’s, have signed up to the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal (link details at the bottom), and have agreed to cut salt and calories.  But many more have done nothing.

Even though all the major supermarkets have signed up, a number of manufacturing names are missing. Few of the high street chains and caterers have done anything in response to the calorie reduction pledge, which involves reformulating recipes and cutting portion size.

According to the EU’s Food Information Council (EUFIC), the relentless increase in portion sizes is fueling obesity.

Petrol stations, newsagents and public swimming pools offer vast ranges of high calorie snacks. Weight Watchers has accused the cinema industry of creating a “toxic environment” for customers, with supersize cartons of popcorn, jumbo sweet bags and bucket-sized servings of soft drinks routinely sold in foyers.

Who’s not pulling their weight?

There is growing tension among retailers, manufacturers and caterers over who is trying hardest to help curb Britain’s obesity epidemic.  Some are known to be frustrated that others are “dragging their feet.”

The head of PepsiCo UK and Ireland, wants more companies across the full spectrum of the food industry to weigh in. His company has reduced salt levels in its Walkers crisps, invested in healthier ranges and increased the proportion of its savoury snacks that are below 160 calories per single serving. Richard Evans, in his role as chair of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) health and wellness steering committee, has called for “the constructive involvement of more players from the industry” and said: “We need to ensure we broaden the burden.”

He’s not alone. The FDF Director General Melanie Leech wants the Department of Health to “bring in new companies to work with our members who have already made substantial commitments.”

Leading health commentator Lois Rogers, who contributes to the Sunday Times, says: “There are 17 sugar cubes in a bottle of cola and a wine glassful of fat in a large pizza. Few restaurants have shown any commitment to provide customers with calorie information. Food manufacturers are well aware that if people knew how much fat and sugar they were really getting, fewer of them would be in the queue to get through the door.”

Regulation, regulation, regulation?

So far, industry changes have been voluntary.  But fizzy drinks, fatty and sugar-laden snacks may face portion size regulation. And the EU is working on an Action Plan on childhood obesity.

Ketchum’s regulatory specialist in Brussels, Auke Haagsma, says: “One member state can’t effectively work in isolation from the rest and so if there’s regulation it will have to be across the whole single market. If industry does not act now, the EU, through its Action Plan, will surely wrestle control from the industry.”

The Westminster government has said it’s committed to a collaborative approach, with businesses taking voluntary action. But it is closely monitoring progress.

‘Token gestures’

Dr Jebb: “I want to see more companies waking up to their responsibilities.  I want to see businesses making commitments across ALL their portfolio and not just some token gestures on a few key items. And of course many food businesses have yet to do anything. The Public Health Minister has already made clear that we have these companies in our sights.”

Dr Jebb is calling on industry to

  • Stop selling or promoting excessive sized items.
  • Reduce standard-sized products, by shaving off a few grammes or mls
  • Make smaller sizes the default option – and ensure that consumers always have the option to buy the smaller products. Often they are only sold in multi-buy bags, when they should be available as single items.

Just say “no”

Some in the sector resent being blamed. “No-one is forcing anyone to buy a huge bucket of popcorn or a super-size chocolate bar. People should just use their brains when making decisions about food,” says a senior food technologist, working for a major retailer.

Lois Rogers adds: “Calories consumed have to match calories expended on activity, or else you put on weight. It’s that simple. Maybe we should be teaching schoolchildren how to monitor their calorie intake.”

Portion caution

“Those in the food industry who’ve been hiding at the back of the cupboard shouldn’t be surprised to hear that they’ll be unable to lie low for much longer,” cautions Nick Agarwal, corporate affairs director at the University of Sheffield, who led communications for Asda and its parent company Walmart for 15 years.

“And unless the whole industry steps up to the plate, the risk is that the government’s stick might turn out to be bigger than its carrot.”

Ketchum’s Auke Haagsma spells it out: “Rising obesity is a problem for governments across Europe.  There’s a real risk that countries adopt divergent measures, leading to calls for harmonisation at the level of the EU.  If industry wants to keep control of things the time to act is now.”

Industry Insights

Industry observers tell Ketchum Bites:

“If you can’t beat ‘em, why not join ‘em? Change is inevitable, so isn’t it better to be on the crest of the wave of that change?”

“Surely more members of the industry should seize a marketing opportunity and sing from the rooftops about the healthy measures they are making or proposing.”

“The department of health should name and shame food businesses that fail to take their public health responsibilities seriously.”

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Read more from Dr Susan Jebb:

Read more on the Dept of Health 6 food pledges:

Read more on the British Medical Association policy of government regulation: