Obese belly

It will come as no surprise to readers of The Grocer to hear consumers are finding it hard to swallow the food & drink industry’s attempts to tackle the obesity crisis. 

New research commissioned by Fishburn for a recent industry round table chaired by Professor Susan Jebb found 83% of consumers cannot name any public information campaigns launched by the food & drink industry to encourage healthier behaviour. Meanwhile, 26% say they have seen no industry action to encourage them to make more informed eating choices.

This will frustrate an industry that has seen the issue of public health and obesity emerge as one of the most pressing it has faced in a generation. The increasing urgency of addressing public health, and the hesitance of some companies in recognising its commercial importance, has led to the industry being accused of being on the back foot. 

To overcome this disconnect, and translate good intentions into notable action, requires a holistic approach and buy-in from senior executives from the start. Ensuring public health ambitions are at the heart of a company’s approach requires strong leadership, board-level buy-in, visible targets and achievable goals, alongside strong corporate communications. Communication of these issues needs to be framed in such a way that not only cuts through with the public and policymakers, but also persuades the senior leadership team that inaction could lead to competitive disadvantage. 

“There is scope to set the terms of a post-Deal landscape”

Making public health commitments a tangible part of a business plan provides a stronger industry-wide defence against calls for further government regulation. This is particularly critical when the most recent ComRes data found 76% of MPs believe industry needs to take more responsibility for levels of obesity in the UK. Crucially, it also helps create an authentic platform to communicate more effectively with consumers. 

For many in the industry it may feel like the recent calls for regulation and legislation, combined with increasingly discerning consumers and intense media scrutiny, have created the perfect storm. However, there is scope for industry leaders to proactively set the terms of a post-Responsibility Deal landscape, demonstrating to a new administration that industry-wide voluntary action can, and is, working. 

One of the most frequent criticisms of the Responsibility Deal was the contested area of marketing and price promotion policies. Perhaps this is one area where adopting a coalition-style approach could be a way for the industry to deliver action and ensure greater visibility. 

We have seen other industries under intense scrutiny, such as the alcohol industry, move to protect their reputations and their commercial interests. The obesity debate, and calls for industry accountability, have now reached a stage where a similar approach could prove profitable. 

In this changing environment, food & drink companies are acutely aware of the risks of inaction. In this instance, we need to ensure the industry’s actions are powerful enough to speak for themselves. 

Dominic Pendry is MD corporate at Fishburn