They may have assumed new prominence as a political hot potato, but school dinners were already changing before Jamie Oliver stepped in with his well-intentioned campaign to kick low-quality ingredients off the menu.
A ban on junk food in vending machines will have legal backing from next year, while the government's School Meals Review Panel has established tough new nutritional guidelines that will come into force in primary schools in 2008 and secondary schools in 2009. Yet, according to some of the leading suppliers of processed food to schools, they were busy reformulating products long before the issue became headline news.
McCain supplies food for around 50% of school meals in the UK with a range that includes French fries, shaped potato products such as Smiles and waffles, and pizzas. "We've been serving this market for around 25 years. Throughout that time we've been working with schools to ensure we're giving the best nutrition to the consumers, in other words, the kids," says Bill Bartlett, foodservice sales and marketing manager.
Even so, reformulation work became focused in earnest around three years ago. In 2002 McCain launched McCain 'light' chips, which can be deep fried to yield a chip with only 6.5% fat. Normal deep fried chips are typically between 9 and 11% fat, depending on the cut, so the reduction is around 30%. "We all know that oven cooking is generally better, but we introduced them because deep fat frying is the quickest way of getting a high throughput so it may be the only option in some kitchens," says Bartlett.
More recently, McCain has reformulated its potato shapes to slash levels of salt and saturated fat. For example, Smiles is the most popular brand and now has 50% less added salt than it used to and is prepared entirely with sunflower oil, rather than the mixed vegetable oil used previously.
The company has also gone all-out with Speedsters, transport-shaped potato products, which now contain no added salt at all. "So far the consumer acceptance seems to be really good," says Bartlett, adding that the company will continue to reduce added salt across its range.
"We're actively researching eliminating added salt from all our products but we have to take the consumer with us. If we're not careful the consumer could reject it. We can take it down in increments, especially with children whose palates are not tainted like adult palates so they don't need as much salt." He estimates that the timescale for other products such as Smiles to lose their remaining added salt could be as little as three to six months.
While the increasing use of sunflower oil may mean children are consuming less 'unhealthy' fat, only a reduction in overall levels of fat will have a significant effect on calories and therefore on obesity. Significant changes in that direction call for new processing techniques, according to Bartlett: "We're currently researching a different processing technique in which the products aren't fried at all. Instead we apply an oil sheen so that the product will reconstitute in an oven to give significant fat reduction. In the short term we're looking to take out as much fat as we can but there's no end game. It's all very much in development."
On the marketing front, McCain is playing it both ways reformulating its existing range to be healthier and developing a separate range of health-conscious products. "We're generally looking to make the entire range more nutritionally balanced but we do have a specific food service aimed at healthier eating. McCain Alternatives are all processed in sunflower oil and you cook them in the oven," he says.
As the UK's leading manufacturer of hot dog sausages, Westler Foods is another big name that believes it's managed to stay ahead of the game.
According to sales and marketing director Bill Griffiths, Westler takes the standards laid down by the Scottish Executive in its 'Hungry for Success' report as its benchmark. "These standards precede any of the high profile initiatives in England and we set ourselves the target of meeting them," he says.
Westler announced in April last year that its Contracts range of hotdog sausages for schools is now formulated to contain 0.4% sodium, a full 25% lower than the salt level specified in the Scottish standard. "We believe Contracts products contain less than a third of the salt content of our nearest competitors," says Griffiths.
The increased pressure is also affecting newer ranges. At the end of last year Westler launched a range of canned fruit and vegetables aimed at caterers. With the exception of baked beans and mushy peas, the new vegetable range has no added salt. Baked beans and mushy peas have reduced salt content and the company is actively working to reduce this further.
But, according to Griffiths, the problem for many major suppliers is as much to do with changing an unfavourable perception of products as it is with reformulation. "[Education secretary] Ruth Kelly talked about getting rid of processed food but the fact is that most food used by contract caterers is processed in some way.
The company is fighting back by changing its marketing and highlighting its products' low salt and fat credentials. "They've always been pretty good, but we just weren't making enough noise about it," he says.
When the announcements of the new regime were made over the summer, Griffiths admits that Westler was concerned about the impact on sales. "We half expected sausage sales to plummet through the floor," he says. "But we've actually found that they're holding at around the 75 to 80% mark and, interestingly, some schools that took them off the menu for a time are putting them back on. They're good food and the kids like them."
More drastic changes
According to Eileen Steinbock, head of health and nutrition at Brakes, many companies may end up having to look at making more drastic changes to their ranges than simply tweaking their formulations. Steinbock is in a good position to read the situation since she was one of the industry representatives on the School Meals Review Panel.
"It's been difficult to decide what to do because some product areas you might want to develop, such as processed meat products, may not feature very much on school menus in future. We haven't used mechanically reclaimed meat in any of our products for a very long time, but I think that any meat products that have been processed so they no longer resemble what they started out as are unlikely to appear," she says.
She agrees that salt and saturated fat reduction are the way forward for other products, however, and the company has been working progressively on reducing salt in products such as fish fingers. But Steinbock believes that Brakes and other manufacturers will increasingly be asked to provide more straightforward food to help time-pressed kitchen staff prepare meals from scratch, such as simple pieces of chicken and fish or small roasting joints. Snacks such as apple slices with grapes or carrot batons are another area that is set to grow, says Steinbock.
Even so, she still believes there is a place for more traditional children's favourites: "Schools currently don't employ staff for very long to do the preparation and cooking, so we need to consider cooking times and it's unlikely they'll be able to remove all the processed food."
Everything in Brakes' Healthier Choices range already meets or comes close to meeting the forthcoming nutritional guidelines. These include burgers, sausages, sandwich fillings, desserts, potato products and pizzas.
There may even be scope to try and introduce 'hidden' ingredients to boost the nutritional value of school food. Sneaking oil-rich fish into fussy children without them noticing is a prime candidate for future products, according to Steinbock.
So there's a definite willingness to change on the part of manufacturers, but the other side of the equation has also been dropping into place in recent years, according to Pauline Stiles, founder of sister companies Pure Organics and Additive Free, which have been manufacturing organic and additive-free ranges from a factory in Amesbury, Wiltshire, since 1996.
"We've been banging on the door the whole time, but we've seen a big change in the response from local authorities in the past three years," says Stiles.
Stiles says they're now selling their products to 20 local authorities. "We're also building new product lines in co-operation with some of the county councils, she says. "It's a working partnership. After all, if we're not feeding children correctly we're just storing up trouble for later."