The eating-out market did at least have a fraction more notice of Boris’s new obesity crusade than those planning a Spanish summer holiday received about quarantine.
But it still came as an unwelcome surprise for most in the restaurant and pub world, not least because only last week the majority of us were still celebrating the cut in VAT and the launch of the Eat Out to Help Out campaign.
Talk about mixed messages. Having just made eating-out cheaper, the government is now telling the public ‘hang on a minute, take it easy’, because when you do eat out you are likely to consume more calories than eating at home, and that’s not good. Yes, that’s in this week’s anti-obesity announcement.
The unavoidable fact, however, is that the country does have a weight problem, and obesity is linked to all number of ailments, not just the severity with which the coronavirus can hit you.
So, some action to improve the nation’s diet shouldn’t come as a complete shock, apart from the fact that Boris Johnson as good as ruled out government intervention when he became prime minister only last year. Of course, his own brush with death appears to have changed his mind, and so we have his hastily assembled obesity strategy.
Our leader may be unpredictable, fond of a u-turn and prone to take out the sledgehammer to crack a particular nut, as in this case – but he probably does have public opinion on his side.
One of the trends that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated is an already increasing public focus on health and fitness, and not just a personal concern but about the well-being of family and friends too. It became one of the top two concerns, along with finance, during lockdown.
Whether the new measures will have any great effect, time will tell, but they are likely to have public support.
Better education about food, starting in schools, is going to be the long-term solution. This package of measures is supposedly about giving the public better information to make sensible choices, hence the focus again on calorie-labelling on menus.
Labelling is a fight that the sector may have thought it had won, so now it needs to dust off the arguments again, and not just about the considerable financial cost but the practicalities, especially for those establishments cooking from scratch – and that means those endeavouring to provide healthy, additive-free, locally-sourced dishes.
Initial legislation on labeling may only affect chains with over 250 employees, but that will catch the entrepreneurial businesses that the market will rely on for recovery – and there is the stated prospect that all businesses, no matter how small, may eventually be captured by legislation.
Government policy-making around the eating-out market looks incoherent; it’s certainly not sophisticated.
Much of the evidence on which the new strategy has been based is old, including the survey on chains’ progress on displaying calorie information, which dates from 2018. The assertion about excess calories consumed when eating out is even older, and mainly comes from the US.
The hospitality sector should be able to put up strong arguments to at least mitigate the effects and to demonstrate progress already made on the health front.
But health and diet are not just on the Government’s priority list but the public’s too. The eating-out market can’t ignore that simple fact. Operators need to act either individually or collectively, and show they are part of the solution. The big challenge is whether a difficult situation can be turned into an advantage, even amid all the rest of the post-coronavirus chaos.
Peter Martin: Going with the grains on healthy eating
The eating-out market did at least have a fraction more notice of Boris’s new obesity crusade than those planning a Spanish summer holiday received about quarantine. But it still came as an unwelcome surprise for most in the restaurant and pub world, not least because only last week the majority of us were still celebrating the cut in VAT and the launch of the Eat Out to Help Out campaign.