Restaurants, cafés and pubs have a chance of being named and shamed unless they make food portions smaller or less sweet, the government has said.
Chains such as Pizza Express, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Gourmet Burger Kitchen have been told to “step up” by cutting sugar from food and reducing the size of desserts, cakes and croissants. Calorie-reduction targets for fatty, savoury foods will also be set.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, told a private meeting of more than 100 food companies yesterday that “going out to eat is no longer a treat” because it is so common. Takeaways and sandwich shops would therefore be expected to take the same action as supermarkets and food manufacturers in tackling Britain’s obesity problem, he said.
The threat to restaurants marks a toughening of approach as the government tries to make the best of a blueprint to reduce childhood obesity that was “castrated” by Theresa May when she arrived in Downing Street. One of the few measures to survive was a voluntary challenge to food companies to reduce sugar in key products by 20 per cent within five years.
Public Health England (PHE) has promised this will be its priority and yesterday revealed the target would apply to all the main sources of sugar for children apart from soft drinks, which will be subject to a sugar tax.
Cereals, confectionery, yoghurts, ice cream, sweet spreads and jams, cakes, biscuits and breakfast foods such as croissants must all become less sweet or smaller, PHE told the meeting.
Calorie-cutting targets for fatty foods including burgers and pizzas will be decided next year. Calorie caps for individual products such as chocolate bars or muffins will also be introduced.
Without legal powers to enforce the changes, Mr Hunt insisted that “doing nothing was not an option” because each company’s actions would be publicly compared. The government would “shine a light” on individual companies’ performance, he said, warning the chains: “You want to be on the right side of this debate.” Precisely how companies will be compared is still being decided but will involve a website where performance against the target is measured.
Going out to eat is no longer a treat. It’s a regular habit for many families
Mr Hunt said that more than a fifth of sugar intake came outside the home and a quarter of families took children to fast food outlets each week. “Going out to eat is no longer a treat. It’s a regular habit for many families and is contributing significantly to the extra calories and sugar that we all consume on a daily basis,” he said.
“We can’t ignore the changing habits of consumers. This means we expect the whole of the out-of-home sector — coffee shops, pubs and family restaurants, quick service restaurants, takeaways, cafés, contract caterers and mass catering suppliers — to step up and deliver on sugar reduction.”
Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, told companies that he “expects uniform and comprehensive reduction and reformulation” across food and drink in all the key categories.
He said: “We need a level playing field — if the food and drink bought in cafés, coffee shops and restaurants does not also get reformulated and portions rethought then it will remain often significantly higher in sugar and bigger in portion than those being sold in supermarkets and convenience shops. This will not help the overall industry to help us all make healthier choices.”
A third of children are too fat by the time they leave primary school, including a fifth who are obese.
Mr Selbie said these “shocking” figures underlined the need for action “to ensure more children do not continue down that path into adulthood and suffer serious health complications as a result”.
Companies have been given three options: reduce the amount of sugar per 100g, make portions smaller or shift consumers to healthier alternatives. Products will be expected to be lower-calorie and fat or salt cannot be added to compensate for lost sugar. The rules will apply to all companies but officials say the priority is the big chains that supply most of our food and can act as examples to independent businesses.
Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “Despite Theresa May’s childhood obesity action plan being generally awful, it has bits worth hanging on to. Action on sugar is one. It will be crucial that the food and drinks industry is compliant and will deserve the promised good kicking if it isn’t. The kick should be applied not just to manufacturers but to high street retailers, too: from your local pizzeria down to the coffee shop which drowns its product with sugar.”
The food industry was relieved by the government’s reliance on voluntary measures and insisted it was already making food healthier. Battles over the feasibility of taking sugar out of specific products remain a possibility, however.
A spokesman for the Food and Drink Federation said that Mr Hunt had “stressed the importance of government and industry working together to tackle this important public health issue”.