The UK is viewed as leading the world in addressing and promoting the need for nutritious and healthier food. Manufacturers must deal with that.
Iwas staggered recently to hear from a senior representative of a US-based global food manufacturer that his company feels the UK leads the world in setting the health agenda for food producers.
I was under the impression that obesity is a problem the US has been grappling with for many years; when I visited the US nearly 30 years ago I was struck by the large number of overweight people. I had therefore assumed that food manufacturers in the US would have been facing political pressure for many years to make their food healthier.
Most people I have spoken to have shared my surprise. Some have suggested that the power of the press in the UK may have had an effect. Others believe the chattering classes managed to elevate the agenda through their desire to make the world a better place for their children. Still others point to the absence, versus the US, of an effective right-wing lobby machine. And then there's the 'Jamie' factor, a new generation of celebrity chefs with surprising clout, as we've seen this week.
These may all be reasons why the healthy food agenda has gathered such momentum, but I do not believe any can take full credit. I believe it is indirectly a result of the fact that the UK health service is paid for with public funds. After all, who stands to benefit most from a healthy population?
While successive governments sold off school playing fields to meet short-term budget deficits, this one funded bodies such as the Food Standards Agency, is closely linked with a number of lobby groups, and is responsible for the largest employer in the UK: the National Health Service.
The FSA was responsible for the advertising character Sid the Slug, designed to warn the public of the risks of excessive salt consumption. The 5-a-day fruit and veg campaign, now recognised by almost everyone in the land, originated from the NHS.
And the government is not alone. Charities such as the British Heart Foundation have also played a major part. Its Food4Thought campaign aims to encourage children to embrace a healthy diet and cut back on junk food. Once seen, it is hard to forget the extraordinary image of a girl drinking from a three-litre bottle of cooking oil, with the strapline 'What goes into crisps goes into you'.
Eating healthier is now firmly on the agenda. All food manufacturers need to be aware of it and the impact it will have on their business.
Some relatively new companies, such as Innocent, Eat Natural, Feel Good Drinks, Organix and Stream Foods, have prospered in part due to the health agenda. Older and bigger companies are also adapting. Danone, admired for its healthy dairy and water products, has shifted to an even healthier business model with the sale of its biscuits division and the purchase of babyfood and nutrition company Numico; health is now at the core of its strategy. Nestlé regularly describes itself as being in the process of a strategic transformation into a nutrition, health and wellness company.
Ethics are also playing their part in defining the UK market, and so too is the environment, but so long as the government is in charge of our health, the winners and losers in the UK food manufacturing industry will be defined by their ability to deal with the health agenda.n
Shaun Browne is MD of McQueen, a boutique corporate finance company specialising in retail and food and drink