Retail and foodservice’s obesity challenge 

Shane Dempsey of Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII), outlines why he believes that instead of focusing on potential punitive policies, genuine government collaboration will yield weightier results in the ongoing obesity dilemma



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10 July 2015

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Shane Dempsey, head of Consumer Foods, FDII

Shane Dempsey, head of Consumer Foods, FDII

Health authorities are increasingly looking to the retail and foodservice sectors to address the obesity challenge. The authorities have traditionally sought to target policies at the food manufacturing industry alone, in a bid to curtail consumption of particular products. Regular reports advocating the introduction of a tax on particular products deemed unhealthy have become commonplace.

More recently, the government has been seeking to introduce measures that will impact on retailers and foodservice companies. Whether this translates into restrictive policies on the availability and promotion of particular foods in the retail environment remains to be seen. The Minister for Health started a consultation process on a National Obesity Strategy to be launched by the end of 2015. Within the consultation documents were a number of suggested policy approaches including restrictive measures against ‘top-shelf’ foods, a national code of practice for the advertising and sponsorship of food and beverage companies and restriction on promotions in retail and planning restrictions based on retail type, were all floated. These measures all stem from a belief that in addressing obesity the ‘environment is the intervention’. Change the retail landscape and you can encourage healthier choices and thus reduce obesity over time.

Living in an obesogenic world

Essentially, this means that the modern world has become an obesogenic environment. People are more sedentary; exercising less and consuming more convenience foods. This leads to the types of imbalanced lifestyles that result in obesity.

Retailers and foodservice outlets have already seen regulations based on this type of thinking in the sale of alcohol products. The previous Minister for Health, James Reilly, introduced calorie posting on menus and this is probably the first attempt to bring about a similar suite of regulations around food products. The current Minister for Health has indicated that he will bring calorie posting into legislation this term. The message to retailers is to expect more of these types of policies in the near future.

‘Top shelf’ foods

The Special Action Group on Obesity, a group involving health promotion officials, health professionals and NGOs, established by the previous minister, has completed a report on restricting access to ‘top shelf’ foods in retail outlets. This is likely to contain measures around impulse purchasing, promotions of healthy foods and placement. These in turn are likely to be a central feature of the upcoming National Obesity Strategy. As in the UK, retailers will probably be asked to sign up to these measures on a voluntary basis initially and non-participants may be named publically.

Unfortunately, it’s well established that there are no simple solutions to obesity. The hideously complex set of factors that drive the imbalance of energy in and energy out and lead to weight gain in the individual require a whole of society approach driven by government. Blaming one sector and focusing punitive policies there doesn’t work. The UK Foresight Report identified 109 interrelated social, biological, economic, psychological and environmental factors that impact on the individual’s likelihood of becoming obese. Everyone needs to play a role.

Reputational threat from obesity

Healthy Ireland is the government’s attempt to shape a healthier Irish society where all stakeholders, businesses, the public sector, the health service and the citizen, are working towards healthier outcomes. The success of this approach will be contingent on the government’s ability to align all these stakeholders behind practical obesity prevention measures. Support from affected sectors is vital in the implementation of any such measure.

Food-related sectors such as retail now face a significant reputational threat from obesity. Many commentators now believe that the food industry, and increasingly retail, is being vilified with many seeing food companies facing similar marketing restrictions, taxation and other punitive policies as other sectors, such as alcohol, in the coming years.

Food businesses reducing obesity

To counteract negative commentary FDII has launched a series of initiatives aimed at demonstrating how food businesses are contributing to reducing obesity.

The FDII Reformulation Report will measure the amount of reformulation carried out by food companies between 2005 and 2012. The project will also measure the impact of these efforts on the population consumption levels. This will generate data that can inform pragmatic functional policies around obesity and demonstrate the positive impact food companies can have on health. FDII will in the coming months be seeking to recruit companies involved in the production and sale of food from other sectors to participate.

Workplace wellbeing

In addition, the Nutrition & Health Foundation, an Ibec group focusing on health promotion, launched Ireland’s first National Workplace Wellbeing Day last March. Many leading public and private sector organisations participated in events to highlight the importance of workplace wellbeing for businesses and employees alike. Minster for Health Leo Varadkar recently launched a bill to formally require public sector bodies to have a workplace wellbeing policy in place. The NHF will run a suite of events featuring leading Irish companies’ workplace wellbeing cultures in the coming months.

This collaborative approach between industry and state agency has worked in the past. The FSAI’s salt reduction programme covering retailer, foodservice and food manufacturers has run since 2006 and yielded significant reductions in salt levels in manufactured food. These results have been acknowledged by the WHO, the FSAI and other key health professionals.

In summary, the obesity challenge is likely to feature prominently in Irish society for the coming years. Increasingly, all sectors, not just food manufacturers, are being targeted by policymakers. Genuine collaboration between government and business sectors will ensure that food companies, consumers and retailers can enjoy a sustainable grocery sector.




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