McDonald's has made the news this week by introducing calorie information to its menus. But how effective will this be in addressing the obesity problem?
This step was taken in response to the Department of Health's Public Health Responsibility Deal, published earlier this year. One of the food pledges to which companies were asked to sign up covers 'out of home calorie labelling':
We will provide calorie information for food and non alcoholic drink for our customers in out of home settings from 1 September 2011 in accordance with the principles for calorie labelling agreed by the Responsibility Deal.
On the face of it, a large corporation has honoured a pledge to make a positive contribution to public health. But when you look a little further into the issue, it doesn't seem such a big committment. Partly this is because McDonalds and others will only be providing calorie and not nutrition content. So, you may not be obese but may have hypertension: is that Big Mac OK to eat or not? How do you know its salt content?
The Children's Food Campaign highlight this particular problem in their new report, The Irresponsibility Deal. They also point to research from the US which shows the ineffectiveness of calorie labelling regulations in New York City:
The study shows that the energy content of meals eaten at one chain (Subway) increased when large portions were heavily promoted, showing that action to address marketing is necessary to help people make healthy changes to what they eat. Lack of action to address marketing - which is effective - may explain why some fast food chains and restaurants have agreed to sign up to this pledge on calorie labelling, which is likely to be ineffective?
In other words, these pledges would seem to keep more rigorous regulation at bay rather than actually making a difference in people's lives. The marketing power of these big companies more than makes up for potential lost sales.
The report also points out that the pledge on removal of trans-fats is largely irrelevant due to existing legislation which has forced retailers to remove them from their own-brand products anyway. Further, the pledge does not call for a reduction in saturated fat in processed foods. This could potentially save 4,000 lives a year.
Some companies seem to have used the pledges as an opportunity for positive messages or just to circumvent current advertising restrictions. Typhoo Tea for example, have signed up to remove trans fats from their tea (which contains none!). However, they can now state with pride that they have signed up to the pledge.
Coca-Cola is not affected by the food pledges and says that it does not market directly to children. Yet its partnering with a national charity, StreetGames, and signing up to the physical activity pledge means that its brand will be exposed to youngsters.
It seems that the Public Health Responsibility Deal is generating more cynicism than enthusiasm for the simple reason that it comes across as a case of 'putting the drunks in charge of the brewery'.
Where companies could undoubtedly form partnerships to improve communities and wider society, they appear to be doing the bare minimum in order to avoid more stringent regulation. As such, the whole thing seems like a missed opportunity.
The full report can be downloaded here.
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