UK supermarkets failing consumers on healthy eating choices

Related tags Nutrition

Several of the UK's leading multiple retailers are failing to help
consumers make healthy eating choices, despite increasing action
from the government to tackle the rising levels of obesity and
dietary-related health problems, Tom Armitage reports.

According to a survey by The Food Commission, a non-profit making organisation campaigning for healthier food in UK, many leading retailers are failing to provide consumers with enough snack- and confectionery-free checkouts.

The survey, involving over 3,500 checkouts across three hundred UK supermarket stores, found that Morrisons was by far the worst offender, with none of its stores providing snack-free checkouts. Conversely, upmarket retailer Waitrose finished in pole position with 96 per cent of its checkouts involved in the survey found to be snack-free.

"Since the acquisition of rival supermarket chain Safeway - which was previously showcased as one of the better UK retailers at promoting healthy foods - Morrisons has in fact lost ground,"​ Kath Dalmeny, senior policy officer at the Food Commission told​.

"This is extremely disappointing, particularly as Morrisons tends to attract consumers from lower socio-economic backgrounds - a group proven to have more dietary-related health problems than more their more affluent counterparts,"​ she added.

Several UK multiple retailers have, however, responded to growing consumer demand for more healthy product offerings.

For instance Asda, currently the UK's second largest supermarket chain behind market leader Tesco, is nearing the end of a trial phase of promoting healthier products at its checkouts (which includes bananas, cherry tomatoes, tangerines, bags of dried fruit and carrots), while Somerfield has also pledged similar support.

But many British retailers have already dismissed the idea of stocking fresh fruit and vegetables at checkouts citing reasons of practicality and cost, although Dalmeny remains sceptical: "Supermarkets stock refrigeration units sponsored by beverage manufacturers - it is simply a question of health over profits."

"Parents are constantly put in the unenviable position of having to deny their children access to more expensive branded snack products, a situation which causes unnecessary conflict,"​ she added.

Marks and Spencer, previously berated by the Food Commission for stocking sugar and chocolate confectionery products labelled with cartoon characters, has abandoned promoting fruit at checkouts after disappointing sales across a pilot scheme.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has already said it will encourage retailers to "remove snack products from checkouts and, wherever possible, replace them with healthier options such as fruit".​ It has also introduced labelling trials, designed to flag up healthier food offerings to British consumers, scheduled to completed by mid-2005.

In November last year the UK government released a White Paper tackling the rising levels of obesity and dietary-related health problems among children, after doctors warned that as many as one in three of the adult population would be obese by 2020 if dietary habits remained unchanged.

"Unfortunately, we feel that standards raised in the White Paper are simply too vague and too watered down,"​ Dalmeny commented.

The Food Commission believes that the increased presence of nutritional labelling and the reduction of harmful ingredients such as salt across some of the food products marketed in the UK is achievable by the government's proposed date of 2007, although the organisation conceded that getting food companies to alter their marketing strategies would be a somewhat more problematic issue.

A surplus of sugar and other ingredients arising from EU CAP funding arrangements has allowed EU confectionery and snack companies to manufacture products at a lower unit cost, which are then sold to multiple retailers for a high mark-up - leaving them with a higher spend on functions such as marketing.

"It is a sad fact that for every £1 spent by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on promoting healthy dietary choices, another £500 is spent marketing high-sugar, high-calorie branded goods,"​ Dalmeny commented.

"Promoters of healthy, unbranded foods simply do not have the resources to fight back,"​ she added.

Rising obesity levels and dietary-related health problems are not just a growing concern for the UK. In August last year the French food safety authority (AFSSA) put forward legislation effectively forcing food companies that market products containing excessive quantities of sugar, salt or sweeteners to stump up a tax equivalent to 1.5 per cent of their annual advertising budget to an organisation devoted to healthy eating.

And following prolific litigation brought by consumers across the United States, many global food manufacturers have already voluntarily agreed to reduce the level of ingredients such as salt across their product lines - a trend likely to be followed by UK manufacturers.

Global food giant Kraft, for instance, has already introduced a universal Sensible Solution healthy labelling policy, which alerts consumers about some of its healthier, more nutritious products and has also pledged to review and remove products that fail to meet dietary standards.

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