McCain, the world's biggest chip maker, is obviously a follower of the philosophy that the best leaders lead from the front. Nick Vermont, regional CEO of McCain's operations in the UK, Ireland, South Africa and Eastern Europe, has spearheaded McCain's efforts in the past six months to "unmask the myths" about potato products, a move he hopes will give the UK's chip sector an image overhaul that will lift it out of its slump. Figures from TNS Worldpanel [52 w/e 13 August 2006] show that sales for oven chips are static at £179m, microchips are down 2.9% to £33m and other potato products are down 6.2% to £171m.
Vermont claims the downturn is primarily due to a misguided response to the obesity problem. A £15m media campaign - dubbed It's All Good - was launched two weeks ago to educate the masses.
But while this makes McCain look like the sector's PR hero, there's one issue that is not going Vermont's way - school dinner rules. Legislation came into force earlier this month that clamps down on foods that are alleged to contribute to childhood obesity because they are served in school canteens ('School winners... and losers', The Grocer, 9 September, p30). Low-quality meat products, fizzy drinks, confectionery and crisps have all been banned, while other deep-fried items, including chips, are to be restricted to two portions a week. Oddly, however, this includes oven chips, McCain's big seller, because the legislation also covers products that undergo brief frying during manufacture. With schools making up 25% of foodservice sales, which in turn make up a third of total sales, it's a point that stirs Vermont's passions.
"This is a particularly foolish piece of law, included at the last minute, and one that the government will regret. There is no logical or nutritional basis for it and it unfairly demonises not only chips but a whole list of other foods too, notably ethnic foods such as samosas," he says. "If you don't have chips on the canteen menu five days a week, kids will leave the canteen in droves and head straight for the nearest greasy spoon café or burger bar, both of which are a far worse health option than chips."
Perhaps what grates most is that McCain has taken strides to play within the rules. It already has a line of oven chips for catering that meets the FSA's standards of less than 5% fat and 1% saturated fat and within the next six to eight months it will have reduced saturated fats by 70% across its entire McCain potato products portfolio. Some £5m has been spent on the retail side, too, to convert the manufacturing process to one that uses healthier sunflower oil. And, most recently, the business has incorporated both traffic-light and GDA labelling on its packaging, because "that's what consumers wanted us to do".
The new legislation, and the fact that potatoes are not counted as a vegetable for the government's 5-a-day campaign purposes, would seem to undermine these moves.
So what next? Vermont's cause now rests with research the company is doing into baking chips for school canteens, rather than frying them. A trial in four schools in the UK using specially designed ovens is already proving beneficial. Bill Bartlett, corporate affairs director, says: "These ovens can make 200 portions of chips every 12 minutes, and the method they use also reduces the fat and saturated fat significantly. They can be used across a range of products including chips, wedges, slices and dices, which children love. In the schools we trialled, meal uptake went up 10%. You can get more children into the dining room, but you need to give them food that they enjoy and that is healthy."
Vermont knows that any attempt to change legislation, especially if it's new, is hard. But, he says: "We're just trying to communicate the facts. Most people would be amazed to learn that our potato products all receive a green traffic light for saturated fats."n