McDonalds is selling salads, Cadbury Trebor Bassett is withdrawing its king-sized Crunchie and Boost chocolate bars and United Biscuits (UB) is telling its workers to shun unhealthy foods. Has the industry gone mad? Certainly some of the stories hitting the news stands present the unlikeliest of scenarios. But food manufacturers have been given a clear message that they are expected to change their game plan.
At the Food Futures congress on obesity and healthy eating, organised by the federation of European food and drink producers -- the CIAA -- manufacturers were told by European health commissioner Robert Madelin that they had done "too little too late" and had lost the trust that they could take the necessary action to help stem the rise in obesity. He said that if the industry did not "pick up the challenge" then the regulators would.
Clearly industry is taking up the challenge. The UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has already announced its seven point food and health manifesto which outlines the UK industry's commitment to cut levels of sugar, fat and salt in products, reduce portion sizes, use more informative labelling, remove vending machines from schools and review current advertising strategies.
How strange then to hear that it has been warned by the Office of Fair Trading that its actions could breach competition rules by restricting competition and reducing consumer choice! Surely, the FDF's action plan is exactly what the European Commission (EC) has been calling for?
The situation highlights the difficulty manufacturers face in answering government calls for action against obesity. Throughout Europe, obesity initiatives are widespread, but agreement on what should be done is not; and each country has its own food-related bugbears.
The UK government has so far focused on salt reduction. Predictably, the European Salt Producers Association is now up in arms and protesting that salt reduction has no significant health benefits for average healthy people and that for the elderly, reduced salt intake could be dangerous. It has a list of clinical papers claimed to back up this point.
In many countries fat content is a bigger issue, and while manufacturers have so far avoided a 'fat tax', most regulatory bodies have expressed a desire to see reduced fat products. The fact that low-fat product development has been going on for well over a decade in the US, but does not seem to have reduced waistlines over there, is conveniently being ignored.
The other controversial ingredient is sugar. Many companies are replacing sugar with low-calorie sweeteners where possible, but France is calling for more radical action. In a report published in October, the French food safety authority (the Agence Français de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments, or AFSSA) said it wanted a significant reduction of sugars added to processed foods. It has set a 25% reduction target for consumption of 'simple' sugars such as monosaccharides and disaccharides over the next five years. It says it expects reductions in sugars such as glucose and fructose that are found in chocolate bars and soft drinks, however, fruits and vegetables that contain sugar will not be penalised.
The AFSSA also rejects the notion that glycaemic index (GI) could be a useful or proven concept in weight management, saying there is no evidence as yet to prove its benefits. This flies in the face of initiatives to introduce GI labelling being taken in other countries, such as Australia, and by Tesco in the UK.
Companies taking action on any of these issues face the proposition of carrying out product reformulation or relabelling at greater cost, only to find they don't meet one or other national authority's ideas of action. And at the risk of lower profits!
Take McDonalds, for example. While its vice-president for Europe, Denis Hennequin, waxed positively to the congress about its new policy of serving salads, he admitted that margins were lower. And its profits have certainly taken a dive. Despite this, the company plans to broaden its offering to include healthy fish and vegetable products to increase its appeal to the, now ageing and more health conscious, baby boomers.
The EC sees improved labelling as an important step towards better educating consumers about what they eat. On this issue Madelin said the EC wants both more and less on the label: "We want fewer health claims where they are not supported by science. We want more data on the content of food."
The restriction of health claims creates its own dilemma for the food industry. Few companies can afford to spend the sums involved in substantiating claims. But how can they sell healthy products if they can not inform consumers of the benefits?
Jacque Vincent, vice chairman of Danone, said: "Developing products takes two years of research, this research costs and we get our investment back by beating competition. If we can't say why our products have improved we can't recoup that investment."
Kraft is one of many companies to have announced action on labelling. It will follow others in providing sodium levels in a salt equivalent. It also plans to introduce Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labelling for calories, fat and salt both for men and women. When GDAs become available for children it will add those to labels as well.
However, Lloyd Hetherington, executive vice-president of public opinion researcher Globescan, raised two points at the congress that highlight the difficulty of getting nutritional messages across on labels. He said the US had had nutrition labelling for 10 years, but this has not appeared to have helped matters. He also said that moves to warn consumers of the presence of cholesterol-raising trans fats by mentioning them on nutrition labels actually led some people to believe they were good for them.
The EC's call for the industry to lead by example on diet has prompted the latest action by UB. It plans a Europe-wide internal communications programme challenging its staff to walk 10,000 steps a day, with all employees receiving pedometers to monitor their progress. This will be supported by a six-month poster campaign providing workers with information on food issues such as obesity, lifestyle, sugar and marketing to children.
"There is increasing pressure on food manufacturers to show that they are actively informing consumers and staff about the importance of having a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle," says Clive Harker, UB company medical advisor.
Equally worrying for the industry are Madelin's comments on the topics of advertising foods to children and school vending machines. "This is where," he said, "there is the biggest gap between what companies are doing and what society expects, and therefore industry must do better."
With so many obesity proposals on the table for the new Commission to consider, food companies had better get the message about their healthy initiatives out there as loud as possible. And the more the better.FM