Inside Track by Peter Martin

Chain restaurants were put in the dock by the health lobby this week. The Soil Association, guardian of all things organic, slammed 10 leading family restaurants for failing to offer enough healthy food choices to children.

It said that none of the brands surveyed in its report came close to meeting new school dinner standards. Meals were high in salt, sugar and fat and offered little fresh fruit or vegetables, it said.

Cafe Rouge, which came bottom of the Soil Association rankings, hit back saying half the meals on its children’s menu were healthy options, and that investigators had not looked at all the menus it offered.

Whitbread, with three brands in the survey, said it was already putting a new emphasis on fresh and healthy food, particularly in children’s meals.

But the Soil Association’s assault shows that it is no longer just fast food chains that are in the sights of the healthy eating lobby. It singled out Beefeater, Brewers Fayre, Cafe Rouge, Garfunkels, Harvester, Hungry Horse, Little Chef, Nando’s, Pizza Hut and TGI Fridays - Nando’s and Café Rouge getting the lowest marks.

Earlier in the week the BBC had run a similar exercise, comparing Nando’s chicken with KFC, Pizza Express pizzas with Domino’s and burgers and milkshakes from Ed’s Easy Diner with McDonalds.

Guess what? Nando’s and Ed’s came off worse with higher fat and calorie levels than their QSR rivals and Pizza Express lost out on the calorie count.

Of course, we could go into the arguments about portion size and occasion, but the point is that this is about public impressions - and casual dining chains have to be prepared to tackle these issues head on.

Health is becoming a middle class obsession with Tory leader David Cameron pitching in this weekend with calls for food businesses to take a lead by ending the marketing of over-processed products, high in fat and low in “real food content”.

The whole of the eating out market is now potentially in the firing line, and needs to think about its PR responses to these types of attacks.

Getting in tune with the debate and the trigger issues is increasingly essential, but staying ahead of wider public opinion and consumer tastes is even more important.

Evidence is that the market is doing that more and more. New research just conducted by Peach Factory suggests that the bosses of food-led businesses now believe that health issues will be the biggest challenge for them over the next five years, more important even than Government legislation.

Of course, the arguments aren’t always that easy, even for the health lobby. Tests on supermarket chicken by Strathclyde University have concluded that organic chicken is less nutritious, contains more fat and tastes worse than free range or battery-farmed meat. Pick over that.

Peter Martin is founder M&C Report and of the Peach Factory consultancy.