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Supermarkets would face multimillion-pound fines if they failed to hit average health scores across their range of products, under a new system of targets to be set out next week by an influential nudge body.

The Grocer has learnt that Nesta, which last week announced it was going into partnership with Asda to trial a range of health interventions in the war against obesity, is also set to unveil plans for all supermarkets to face mandatory targets for health.

Last week, Asda and Sainsbury’s both backed its calls for the government to set regulatory targets for supermarkets, which they said would create a level playing field on health.

The innovation charity, which acquired No 10’s so-called Nudge Unit in 2021, says its plans will be targeted specifically at major food retailers, rather than suppliers.

It says government proposals for voluntary reporting across all major retailers and suppliers, currently being planned by the DHSC, are too complicated and lack teeth.

Nesta’s proposed new system will call on the government to set an average health score for supermarkets, instead of a proportion of sales coming from healthy products, which it says will encourage small changes across all sectors.

The system would use the existing nutrient profiling model. According to Hugo Harper, mission director at Nesta’s Healthy Life Programme, it would mean “there is no such thing as bad food”.

He told The Grocer: “Our plan means you can still sell stuff that would be considered junk food or bad.

“We think that is really important because food isn’t smoking, people take a lot of joy from this stuff.

“We want to give people the maximum number of levers to achieve this goal and retailers have a lot more levers than manufacturers do.”

Harper said while he was encouraged to receive backing from Asda and Sainsbury’s at last week’s Labour conference, Nesta’s plan for targets was aimed at government, not industry.

“The key thing is that there is a potential fine if you don’t hit the targets. Nobody signs up to that. This is something that would be brought in by government.”

Harper said there was a big distinction between its plans for an average health score across whole supermarket ranges and the announcement from the likes of Tesco, which has set a target of 65% of its sales coming from non HFSS products by 2025.

“Tesco set a target for a proportion of healthy food,” said Harper.

“That is explicitly not what we are talking about. What we are talking about is an average healthiness score. What that means is you are incentivised to make improvements to things that are still within the unhealthy category.”

Harper also said he hoped in the future any fines on supermarkets could be ringfenced to go towards the NHS or other ways of fighting obesity, but at this stage Nesta was avoiding any such complication. 

“In an ideal world nobody pays any fines,” he said. “Everybody hits the targets. The industry need to be given a proper amount of time to hit the targets.” 

Nesta said its system also had big advantages over the government’s plans, because it would safeguard against price increases and avoid massive complications from health targets being applied across thousands of food manufacturers.

“We see this as a route to achieving these changes without there definitely being any price increases in the system,” added Harper.

“The tricky thing about manufacturers is that they can be responsible for a much smaller variation in food.

If you make chocolate, for example, and that’s all you make, there is not really a healthier version of chocolate.”

Nesta also stressed its system would deliberately not be public facing, amid fears among many supermarket bosses and politicians that the public are turned off by a ‘nanny state’ approach.

“We explicitly don’t expect information like this to be understood by the public,” he said.

“But the fact is all retailers already have to score their products against the nutrient profile so they know where they can place their products, so it’s not setting up some complicated new system that will take years to introduce.”