Inside Track by Mark Stretton
While issues surrounding health and diet continue to rise up the scale for consumers, the spotlight on the eating-out industry seems to be fading – at least for now. The new health secretary has promised that the government will administer a light touch when it comes to regulating on dietary-related health matters – in stark contrast to the previous administration. Andrew Lansley said the coalition would stop “nannying”. Instead, the aim would be to “nudge” people to make the right decisions. Lansley’s comments came amid talk of a scrapping of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a watchdog that has in recent years seen its remit extended from devising and overseeing health and safety regulations, to one that encompasses nutrition, diet and all sorts. Talk of its demise does seem exaggerated, with a hastily prepared statement from the government saying no decision had been taken, however, it does appear that, against the backdrop of a complete reappraisal of public spending, the FSA will be taken back to its origins, with policy designed to address diet, nutrition and long-term health issues moved back into the Department of Health. The move, plus Lansley’s comments, and David Cameron’s desire to stop nannying and start nudging (for more on nudging, see below), means that it looks like this government is not going to ask the public to the weigh themselves on a weekly basis or keep food diaries any time soon. The intimated change in policy on food and health comes as the eating-out sector waits for the publication of the FSA’s research in to calorie disclosure on restaurant menus, a trial conducted last year in concert with 18 companies. Sources have described this project as being in a state of “limbo”. There is no certainty when the results will come to light, and there now seems little prospect of the nation’s restaurant and pub groups being asked to disclose the numbers of calories on menus, unlike in the US, where legislation for groups with 20 outlets or more to do just that has been given the green light. For those operators dishing up flavourful, indulgent food, with sky-high calories counts to boot, it will come as something of a relief as research shows that calorie disclosure does change habits for some consumers. Pub folk can also for the moment admonish thoughts of serving up pints, with a stack of information written on the side of the glass, like alcohol and calories content. However, stepping back from this issue completely would be a mistake. If what we think is happening, is happening, then the industry can be thankful for a period of grace. Health is undoubtedly a biggie, becoming a more and more deep-seated factor in the way we live our lives. The levels of calories, fat, salt and sugar present in food served in restaurants – and how companies communicate this, and work to reduce the levels, should be food for thought for everyone. My colleagues at The Grocer magazine tell me that the nation’s supermarkets and food producers remain all over this issue. Recent research from Allegra Strategies suggested consumers want more information, with half saying the number of calories in each dish should be disclosed. When Allegra asked business leaders from the eating-out market the same question, only a third thought that calories should count on menus. However, Allegra’s survey showed that restaurant leaders thought that healthy-eating concepts would be the fastest growing cuisine type. Healthy eating and locally sourced produce would be the biggest issues driving menu evolution too. The Nudge theory In case, unlike David Cameron, you haven’t got round to reading it yet, Nudge (Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness) examines the way in which very small changes to our behaviour lead to greater improvements in our well-being. It was written by Richard Thaler, an American economist, and Cass Sunstein, who works with the Obama administration under the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Not only is it dominating the coffee table in the Cameron household, such has been its impact on our new prime minister that Thaler has been recruited as an advisor to the new government. The book marries economics and psychology and explores how to consciously make choices that will help us achieve goals – “choice architecture”. Nudge says people should be free to make their own choices and should be presented with the full array of choices, even the bad ones, but should be influenced to make the best decision by making it easier for them to do so – such as putting healthier foods on the most accessible shelf and the sweets on the highest, hardest-to-reach shelf. It calls this “Libertarian Paternalism”. The book says people adopt often-flawed rules of thumb in order to make decisions because they are too busy to think deeply about every choice they have to make. They accept questions as posed and are influenced by biases in the human thought process. These biases can be manipulated as ‘nudges’ to influence people to make better decisions. Welcome to the government’s new tool for social influence.