BY JAMES BUTCHER,
MANAGING DIRECTOR – SOLUTIONS FOR RETAIL BRANDS (S4RB)
The revelation that the UK food industry has failed to meet Public Health England (PHE) targets of cutting sugar by 5% may be a surprise for some given the hype surrounding the recently introduced sugar tax and the appearance of new ‘healthier’ product lines.
However, it’s clear that retailers need to continue to take a lead, collaboratively with suppliers, if they want to avoid missing the long-term goal of cutting sugar by 20% by 2020.
I think I speak for many professionals across the retail industry that I was surprised by the lack of ‘mainstream’ media coverage of these figures, though the complexity of PHE’s report might have been a contributing reason. Nevertheless, the fact that retailers are continuing to miss the mark should not be ignored.
That said, when looking closer at the findings of the report, it was interesting to see that own-brand products outperformed household national brand names in their efforts to reduce both sugar and calories. This was reflected across figures provided by Sainsbury’s, Asda and the Co-op. Aldi has also won a number of innovation awards for its efforts, but it is hard to measure the impact on reducing sugar levels due to a lack of comparable data (as with Lidl). It will be interesting to see how its products continue to perform in the years to come.
What was disappointing, however, was the decision from Marks and Spencer not to disclose as much information as other retailers. Those who are cynical might assume it’s due to poor performance measures, but it could be that they have some innovative changes in the pipeline to come.
With these retailers likely to have closer affinities to their own-brand suppliers, it may be that a similar approach to enhance supplier engagement is needed across the board if chains are to meet these ambitious government benchmarks.
In the US, where pressure on retailers to supply more sustainable and healthier products is also ramping up, we have already witnessed the positive impact of streamlined communication between suppliers and retailers in helping to achieve ambitious health targets. One major North American retailer that S4RB worked with, for example, was able to reduce the amount of sugar in its products by more than 25% and salt by more than 10%.
One of the main findings of this project was that having a process in place that regularly engages suppliers would improve motivation and ultimately enhance the quality of products provided. These ‘brand evangelists’ are more likely to follow direction and adopt any retailer’s long terms goals for own brand – not only environmental and sustainable practices, but also broader brand development.
It’s this approach that I feel will be crucial over the next two years if we are to surpass the 20% mark. Many groups, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Health Foundation, are already questioning whether the task of achieving this goal is too ambitious without the enforcement of additional taxes, such as the soft drinks sugar levy. However, I feel these bodies underestimate the moves that UK industry has already made in the past year.
The volume of new healthier products already is huge, and many forget about the 6-12-month lead time it typically takes to reformulate and bring a new product to market. For now, the action must be to stay true to the current initiative, as by changing the whole approach will only cause confusion and delay.
Conversations behind the scenes between retailers and suppliers must continue to ensure they remain focused on the same goalposts to achieve these targets, whether that’s reducing the size of products, reformulating ingredients or finding sugar alternatives. Furthermore, once these items have gone to market, discussions must continue to ensure suppliers are well aware of customer feedback. This will be crucial in delivering products that have longevity and continue to stay ahead of competitors.
Despite this recent negative announcement, I feel the UK retail sector is in a stronger position than these statistics actually suggest and, certainly in terms of own brands many are in fact on track to meet PHE’s 2020 targets. Previous successful efforts to reduce salt and hydrogenated fat intake across the sector have shown that British retailers and suppliers know what they’re doing when it comes to reformulating products and I expect no less in this instance. Improvements in technology have only enhanced communications and transparency, which will play a crucial role during this busy period of new product development.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020