The long shadow cast by obesity over public health means that encouraging healthier eating should be high on the agenda of every food firm, come financial rain or shine.
The UK’s Change4Life programme, launched last week, met with some reservations from small business organisations concerned that it adds one more pressure to the list they have to deal with – at a time when many are struggling just to stay afloat.
Small businesses do not have it easy. They tend to have smaller pots of ready cash, narrower margins and tight marketing budgets. The burden of complying with new regulations is often greater than for big players with internal regulatory set ups.
Those pressures do become more grave when the economic forecast is gloomy – especially for those firms whose business is built around premium food and drink products, on which cash-strapped consumers may look to cut back.
The trouble is, the obesity problem is not going to go into hibernation while the world crawls out of recession. Growth rates may be in a decline, but obesity rates are highly unlikely to do the same of their own accord.
The Foresight Report, published last year, put the 2004 obesity rate in the UK at 24 per cent in 2004 for both males and females. By 2015 it predicted an increase to 36 per cent and 28 per cent respectively; by 2025 to 47 and 36 per cent respectively; and by 2050 to 60 and 50 per cent respectively.
In 40 years’ time, the cost of obesity could be as high as £46bn (€54.2bn at today’s rates), taking into account tackling health effects like diabetes and cancer, state benefits and lost productivity.
That is a considerable drag on the national purse in the long run – and seriously bad news for the millions of consumers who will eat and idle their way to an early death.
The Change4Life programme is taking an appropriately multi-pronged approach to obesity. It is not hurling the cup of blame at the food industry, but pledging to improve channels of communication to parents and other consumers, equipping healthcare professionals with resources, and signing up commercial operators to healthy eating and physical activity initiatives.
Make no mistake, the Change4Life programme is a good thing.
When parents are refusing to believe their children are obese, and are simply not making the connection between poor eating habits and poor health, a coordinated, attention-raising effort is needed.
Every business is different, with different needs, capabilities and strategies; a one-size obesity strategy will not fit all.
A knee-jerk we-can’t-do-this-right-now reaction is not helpful.
Rather, a sober look at what measures, however small, can be taken would be a start. Tackling obesity needs to be built into every food-related business plan – if possible from day one, then as soon as feasibly possible.
It needs to permeate the business, and become an element of every decision that is made.
Got a new product? How about lowering the fat?
Updating the website? Let’s include a healthy eating message.
And so, bit by bit, the tide of obesity consciousness could be turned – and with it, the scary statistics.
Wouldn’t it be great if Change4Life is a runaway success?
At the end of the day, consumers could become so used to the healthy messages they will ask themselves: “Why is X company not looking out for my health?”.
That, indeed, would be the moment when the sun peeks through the clouds once more.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com