Debating the sweet stuff

Safefood chief executive officer Martin Higgins says the group wants to "make it easier for parents to make a healthy decision"
Safefood chief executive officer Martin Higgins says the group wants to "make it easier for parents to make a healthy decision"

With sugar increasingly receiving a bad rap as the bogeyman of the food industry, ShelfLife examines the potential consequences for food producers and retailers



19 March 2014

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The sugar industry is under siege. Sugar is being blamed for everything from obesity to ageing to cancer and has been well and truly vilified of late, giving some reprieve to its old pals salt and saturated fat. These concentrated attacks on certain food groups can pose huge challenges to food producers and retailers, as they figure out how to navigate around the negative press, possible taxation and more stringent labelling laws.

Gillian Hamill looks at what is happening on the ground in relation to this issue with supermarkets coming under pressure from Safefood to incorporate sweet-free checkouts and the threat of the possible introduction of a sugar tax.

Shane Dempsey is head of Consumer Foods for Food and Drink Industry Ireland. He writes about the challenges facing the food industry in light of increasing obesity rates and the focus on the danger of excess sugar in the diet and looks at how to combat this in a sensible manner.


Time to check up on checkout confectionery?

Safefood recently announced it had contacted Ireland’s multiples to ask if they would cut out confectionery at checkouts in a bid to tackle Ireland’s growing obesity problem. Gillian Hamill spoke to Safefood CEO Martin Higgins to hear what progress the group’s request has made

Safefood chief executive officer Martin Higgins says the group wants to "make it easier for parents to make a healthy decision"

Safefood chief executive officer Martin Higgins says the group wants to "make it easier for parents to make a healthy decision"

Last month, Safefood approached the CEOs of Aldi Ireland, Dunnes Stores, Lidl Ireland, Musgrave Group and Tesco Ireland to ask them to introduce ‘sweet-free checkouts’ – in order to "support the many customers that are trying to make healthy choices when shopping".

Research conducted by the all-island body that promotes food safety and nutrition, showed 73% of people believe that having sweets and treats at checkouts contributes to obesity. What’s more, the focus group study found 29% of Irish shoppers would be more likely to shop at places where junk food at checkouts is banned.

Retailer response

Meanwhile in the UK, Lidl recently announced it has banned sweets and chocolate bars at the checkouts of all 600 of its UK stores. Sweets have now been replaced with dried and fresh fruit, oatcakes and juices, in a bid to stop parents being plagued by ‘pester power’.

As regards introducing the move in Ireland, a Lidl press representative previously told ShelfLife, it was gathering "as much information and knowledge" as possible about the UK trial before deciding on whether or not to introduce it here.

Naturally, we were interested to hear how other retailers had replied to Safefood’s request. CEO Martin Higgins told us: "I understand that Aldi, like Lidl, is trialling sweet-free tills in the UK, and we await the results there. We are also continuing to engage with the Musgrave Group on a range of initiatives aimed at facilitating customers to make healthy choices."

Safefood had also met with Tesco and found it to be "very positively disposed towards looking at what can be helpful to its customers from a health point of view, but obviously there are commercial considerations as well." However, Higgins adds that, "a number of Tesco stores already have sweet-free tills as an option for customers".

Support from Senator Quinn

"That’s what we’re encouraging retailers to do, where they have that option, is to highlight it. That was one of the focus points if you go back to the days of Feargal Quinn. He made a big point that there were sweet-free checkouts and highlighted that to customers. The driving force at that time, 30 years ago, was pester power rather than specifically a nutrition message. Obviously obesity wasn’t the threat that it is now to public health back in those days."

Higgins is also keen to emphasise that while Safefood has "nothing against treats as treats," its focus is firmly on "making it easier for parents particularly to make a [healthy] choice".

Due to the level of esteem Senator Feargal Quinn is held in throughout the retail industry, his decision to lend his support to Safefood’s campaign, has made him a powerful ally for the group. Speaking on the issue, Senator Quinn said that although he is "aware of the competitive environment in which food retailers operate…With one in every four children on the island of Ireland overweight, there is potential for Irish supermarkets to play a role in helping parents to make healthier choices for children."

Acknowledging the Senator’s support, Higgins notes: "What he also has that’s been very useful is that he has great insights as a retailer…He can see it from the retailer’s point of view and that helps us to have that conversation with retailers [because] we can speak their language."

Whole diet approach

When asked if he believes there is too much focus by the health industry and media on the negative effects of sugar, the CEO replies: "We try to promote a whole diet approach but there’s no doubt that there are a couple of areas where the diet is significantly out of balance. Foods that are high in sugars, high in fat and high in salt fit into that category. Particularly for children, from four to 18-year-olds, foods that are high in fat and salt and sugar represent 20% of their intake. There’s an overconsumption of those foods and they tend to be present in snacks. One of the problems with snacking as we all know, is that snacking can displace eating full meals so it can displace the opportunity to take in healthier foods…It’s not sugar per se, because we need sugar in our diet."

Higgins also believes nutritional information needs to be presented in ways that consumers can more easily understand. "One of our campaigns shows the number of sugar cubes in various drinks. That’s illustrated in a simple way because if you read a nutrition label on the back of foods it can be very, very confusing…There’s a lot to be done in relation to giving information in a way that people can understand." 

Parental responsibility 

ShelfLife asked Higgins whether instead of focusing on removing sweets at checkouts, the ultimate responsibility for what their children consume, lies with the parents? "Of course, because it’s the adults who buy the food but I suppose what we’re trying to do is to assist parents when they’re choosing options," he says. "For example, this isn’t to demonise supermarkets, but one of the messages we give is that saying no in the supermarket when it comes to buying treats makes it an awful lot easier for the parent when they get home."

Sugar tax

We were also keen to hear Safefood’s views on the fat/sugar tax idea previously proposed by Health Minister, Dr James Reilly. Higgins replies: "We’re not against any one initiative but it has to be part of a suite of initiatives; a sugar tax on its own is not going to address the problem and the reality of the situation is that Minister Reilly has taken this to the cabinet on two occasions, he is on record as saying that and he hasn’t managed to persuade his ministerial colleagues to take this forward so there is a realpolitik here as well; we can’t rely just on taxation. We’re in a situation where government is looking at reducing the tax burden on families, so that has to be taken into consideration as well."


Obesity poses greater reputational threat than any other food scare

Shane Dempsey, head of Consumer Foods, Food and Drink Industry Ireland discusses the prevalent and emotive issue of obesity and looks at how food companies are being labelled as the ‘bad guys’; potentially facing marketing and taxation restrictions in the years ahead. He outlines initiatives like FDII’s health strategy to demonstrate the efforts the industry is already making to tailor its products for the better

Shane Dempsey, head of Consumer Foods, FDII

Shane Dempsey, head of Consumer Foods, FDII

The worrying increase in obesity rates has the potential to undermine the consumer’s trust in the food supply chain more fundamentally than any previous food scare. Suppliers and retailers must work together with government to address obesity and ensure that their reputations are enhanced rather than ruined by this issue.

Too simple to simply ban a product

The reputational damage of the obesity crisis is incremental but much more long-lasting and profound than traditional food scares. The danger for companies in the obesity crisis is that some influential commentators advocate a narrow silver bullet solution to obesity. Ban this nutrient, restrict this product, use profiling to identify ‘bad’ foods and this will reduce obesity, the thinking goes. They are trying to position food companies and retailers as ‘the bad guys’ in the popular mind and ultimately undermine consumer trust. Inevitably, political calls for punitive policies such as taxation follow. As the obesity crisis will unfortunately be with us for decades, this has the potential to fundamentally damage reputation across generations of consumers.

However, there is no simple solution to obesity and targeting one food, nutrient or lifestyle factor will not work. In 2014, retailers and food suppliers will have to work very hard individually and together to protect their reputations and their relationships with the consumer. The only solution is to successfully make the argument to government that collaboration with industry in a ‘whole of society’ effort will reduce obesity without damaging jobs and growth in the grocery sector. Not doing so, cedes the debate to the ‘blame’ side and will result in a suite of unproven policies such as food taxation, marketing restrictions across all media, enforced changes to store layout and restrictions on customer access to products deemed unhealthy.

Soft drinks unfairly targeted

Ask those in the bread category and the soft drinks category to name just two. Both have been unfairly targeted in this debate and have suffered. Soft drinks have unfairly become the bête noire of the health lobby over the past four years. They have faced an unprecedented attack from all parts of the health lobby from the head of the World Health Organisation to health and lifestyle commentators despite only contributing a minimal amount of calories in the population. Most health bodies now advocate taxation on the category.

‘Action on Sugar’ is an EU wide campaign spearheaded by long-time anti-food industry advocates Robert Lustig and Mike Raynor and was launched in January. Their goal is to reduce sugar in consumer foods by 20%-30%. Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII) tracked a huge increase in negative media coverage focusing on sugar, obesity and the food industry. A number of UK television programmes such as Dispatches have perpetuated themes that lay the blame for obesity solely at the feet of food companies and retailers.

Certain categories will think that they are not at risk. But the focus on the war on obesity can shift very quickly and any category can become collateral damage. The current focus on sugar has seen campaigns arise that will affect any category where sugar features. For example, this month, the UK’s chief medical officer has called for a tax to reduce consumption of ‘addictive sugar’.

These messages are getting through. The bread category, particularly the traditional white sliced pan, is another product that has suffered significant reputational damage after the unfair and imbalanced vilification of carbohydrates in the early 2000s.


No simple solution

Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to obesity despite some of the oversimplistic and misleading headlines. Prohibition of products on the basis of their nutritional composition will not reduce obesity. Many leading health professionals in the UK have deemed the vilification of one nutrient or food as misleading and question its scientific veracity. The hideously complex set of factors that drive the imbalance of energy in and energy out leading to weight gain in the individual require a ‘whole of society’ approach. For the consumer, more information and support is required – not overly simplified messages.

In these sorts of long-running health debates, there is a tipping point, after which, you become the bad guy. The food and retail industries are at that point. Food and retail must now act to ensure they are seen as a credible partner with government in addressing this societal challenge.

Communications disconnect

In fact, food companies and retailers have long recognised they have a role to play and spend billions reformulating their products, producing healthier options, promoting healthier lifestyles and providing clear information about lifestyle. However, these efforts have not so far been recognised sufficiently. There is a communications disconnect between industry, government and the health community on this issue.

FDII has developed a collaborative platform under its health strategy that aims to generate genuine collaboration with government that works on obesity. It aims to ensure that companies and the impact of their efforts are recognised by all stakeholders. It also provides a range of initiatives that any food company can participate in with a view to demonstrating their commitment to resolving this issue.

When industry and government do collaborate effectively on population health issues, huge strides can be taken. Since 2004, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has run a highly successful salt reduction programme with leading FDII members and large retailers. This programme was recently commended by WHO Europe and reduced significantly the amount of salt consumed in purchased food across the population. This provides a working model for collaboration between industry and government that has a population impact without unnecessarily damaging the sector.

FDII’s research shows that the consumer is demanding from industry, in order of preference, clear labelling, reformulated products with reduced nutrient and low cal/no cal options and promotion of healthy lifestyles and activity.

Reducing obesity levels through collaberation

FDII’s initiatives such as the Nutrition and Health Foundation and the Creme Global Reformulation project involve collaboration with policy makers. Each will generate data that can inform pragmatic functional policies aimed at reducing obesity. Those companies who are involved will be able to highlight their efforts in reformulation and in workplace wellbeing for example. These two areas have been identified by the Department of Health as key areas where industry can contribute to a ‘Healthy Ireland’ and where collaboration could have an important contribution in efforts to reduce obesity. With these initiatives, FDII aims to make Ireland the international exemplar of how business and government can collaborate effectively in reducing obesity levels.

It’s absolutely essential that the widest range of companies participate in and support these initiatives. As all categories will be affected by policies aimed towards reducing nutrient consumption in the population, most consumer products will face challenges to their ability to trade and communicate with the consumer. The widest participation across food companies will increase their impact and credibility. The end result should be compelling evidence that food companies are playing their part in this societal challenge and that collaboration not vilification is the way forward.

Banning sweets at checkouts

Retailers are increasingly being drawn into the debate which will impact on the how the sector operates. Recently, Safefood has invited retailers to ban sweets at the checkout. Again, the approach has a narrow focus aimed at restricting or prohibiting a single category or product. These sorts of policies are promulgating around the globe as governments struggle with rising obesity rates. A couple of weeks ago the Scottish parliament threatened to bring such a measure into regulation.

Increasingly, EU member state health departments are seeking out early adopters in the food and retail spaces to lead healthy initiatives on a voluntary basis. Those companies who stay out of such initiatives are then ‘left behind’ and exposed from a reputation point of view. This approach is quicker than trying to push regulation/legislation through the political system.

UK’s new labelling system

In the coming months, we will see the UK’s new hybrid labelling system appear on our supermarket shelves. Last year, retailers ‘voluntarily’ agreed to introduce a traffic light based system on labels for their own label products under the UK’s Responsibility Deal – the UK government’s collaborative platform with industry. These labels are based on the UK’s nutrient profile system under which products like cheese, whole milk and cereals would carry red and amber lights. This highlights again the dangers of ‘blame’ policies targeted at restricting products. Without societal collaboration, policy coherence and informational cogency, people will not be influenced towards healthier lifestyles.

With obesity, the sector’s reputation is under threat as never before. Certain commentators are seeking to undermine people’s trust in brands and the food they consume. If both food and retail sectors fail to demonstrate the efforts they are making, through initiatives like FDII’s health strategy, then they will be positioned as the ‘bad guys’ and they will face marketing restrictions, taxation and other punitive policies in the coming years.






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