Would it be such a bad thing if pubs had to display calorie counts on draught beer pumps or restaurants the same on wine lists?
The swift and damning reaction from much of the hospitality sector this week to this idea, contained in a leaked Government report, tells its own story. No, it’s not good at all, and certainly not now.
“Ludicrous”, “outrageous”, “burdensome”, “expensive”, “nonsensical”, “overbearing” and “absurd” were just a selection of the adjectives fired at the suggestion that Government ministers want a 12-week consultation on a proposal to force businesses employing 250 or more to display calorie counts for all beer, wine and spirits on sale.
Another case of Whitehall causing exasperation in a struggling and weary sector trying desperately to be positive – and, of course, all this plays perfectly to the narrative that the Government has somehow got it in for hospitality, and the pub sector in particular, and is just trying to find new ways to make it difficult to trade.
But there’s something bigger at play here. Throughout the pandemic we have witnessed the growing influence of the health and anti-alcohol lobby on Government policy, from curfews to substantial meals to get a drink – and all part of an agenda to dictate the nation’s diet.
I’ve written often enough lately (see Licensed to disrupt) on the growing danger of political creep. Now that Government has embedded itself so thoroughly in our business lives, it’s going to be difficult to untangle it.
Further encroachments need to be resisted, but the nagging question is should all these battles be fought with the same vigour and tactics? Should the sector be more selective, subtle even, in where it wants to make a stand?
I framed the question above the way I did, because asked like that my guess is that most respondents in any public opinion poll would probably think the idea was totally reasonable. Who wouldn’t want to know how many calories they were consuming?
Of course, that’s not the whole picture. There’s the cost of change, and although drinks companies would have to do most of the heavily lifting, that price would need to be passed on. It’s always worth adding the words “even if it costs more” to any consumer question if you want a more nuanced answer.
Nevertheless, how messages land is always important whether with our political leaders or the wider public. Blanket objections to all new proposals could paint hospitality companies as simply a reactionary bunch dead set against all change.
The truth is that the Government and the medical profession, and much of the public too, wants and needs to tackle the obesity problem in Britain – not least now because of the statistical link between being overweight and suffering more severely from COVID complications.
Calorie transparency is a small part of that. It might not be the most effective weapon, but hospitality and the drinks industry doesn’t want to end up on the wrong side of the obesity argument.
Obesity is becoming the new tobacco, and looking back at the smoking ban, while some in the pub and bar market fought that to the bitter end, others took a more pragmatic view and embraced the inevitable – and reaped some benefits.
Is it time to be a little more creative and to get on the front foot? After all customer trends are all moving in the direction of wanting to be healthier, being concerned about wellness in general and wanting more transparency about ingredients and provenance.
Does hospitality want to be part of the solution, to use that well-worn phrase? If so it needs to come up with some answers itself, and perhaps be ready to accept some compromises.
Many will be bristling at the idea of giving the health lobby even an inch, but doing the unexpected and addressing the issue head on might just put the other side off guard.
As UKHospitality’s Kate Nicholls said, the labelling of food and drink is a complex area, and urged the government to work with the industry on “workable solutions” that strike a balance between meeting public health objectives and not creating additional business burdens.
What “workable solutions” are individual companies willing to accept, or more importantly propose? Calorie counting is a real issue for the sector, but there are almost certainly bigger battles ahead.
Peter Martin: Delivering the unexpected
Would it be such a bad thing if pubs had to display calorie counts on draught beer pumps or restaurants the same on wine lists? The swift and damning reaction from much of the hospitality sector last week to this idea, contained in a leaked Government report, tells its own story. No, it’s not good at all, and certainly not now. “Ludicrous”, “outrageous”, “burdensome”, “expensive”, “nonsensical”, “overbearing” and “absurd” were just a selection of the adjectives fired at the suggestion.