Unilever CEO presents 'manifesto' to food industry

By Anthony Fletcher in Brussels

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food industry, Nutrition

Unilever CEO Patrick Cescau presented his 'manifesto for the food
industry' to the CIAA Congress last week.

In a keynote speech in Brussels last Friday, he argued that though a great deal of progress has been made, further changes still need to be effected.

This is in part because the food industry is still making up for lost time. Cescau admitted to being puzzled why, "with the benefit of hindsight,"​ a large part of the food industry took its eye off the 'nutritional' ball during the 1990s.

He argued that while most food businesses were quick to spot the demand for taste, convenience and value, they were blind to the fact that consumers were getting fat, unfit and progressively unhealthier.

"It was only in the first years of this millennium, when the World Health Organisation and others started ringing the alarm bell, that we started thinking as carefully about nutrition as we had about taste and convenience,"​ he said.

"By this time, of course, some politicians, NGOs and consumer groups were accusing us of being the root cause of a major public health crisis that of obesity."

The crux of Cescau's speech was that the food industry must do more to rebuild public confidence. It needs a manifesto to guide its activities.

"This manifesto should embrace formulations, labelling, health claims, marketing and advertising, work-place health and public education,"​ he said.

Formulation

The industry needs to drive down the levels of sugar, salt, trans-fats and saturated fats in its products, said Cescau. And wherever possible trans-fats should be eliminated entirely.

"It is worth making a comment on the pace of change,"​ he said. "Many critics of the food industry are urging us to go further and faster. My response to them is that we can only move at the speed of the consumer."

Labelling

"On labelling, the objective is easier to define,"​ said Cescau. "We have a duty to provide clear, simply information that will allow consumers to make informed choices."

He claimed that good progress has been made towards achieving this goal thanks to CIAA voluntary commitments. All CIAA members are encouraged to mark GDAs Guideline Daily Amounts on the backs of packs. On the front of pack it has been agreed to communicate the number of calories per serving.

However, he expressed strong reservations over traffic light labelling, which he argued were too simplistic.

"Our judgement should be based not on which scheme the consumer prefers, but on which scheme drives the right behaviours. This should be evidenced by what products people actually put in their baskets in real life shopping situations."

Health Claims

"There remain a number of unresolved issues, not least the development of an EU-wide nutrient profile mode land a list of allowable health claims,"​ said Cescau.

"At Unilever we are concerned that some national authorities will not allow products on the market until the process of finalising the nutrient profile model and agreeing the health claims list is complete. We must guard against this because it would be a barrier to innovation and create uncertainly for business."

Marketing and Advertising

Unsurprisingly, responsible marketing is another item on Cescau's food manifesto. The food industry has been under great pressure over advertising to children, but he argues that a blanket ban is not the answer.

"The best approach is self-regulation. But the right to self-regulate has to be earned.

I'm not convinced that citizens and legislators feel that we can be trusted to regulate ourselves. We need to prove them wrong by tightening our codes and enforcing them rigorously."

Work Place Health

Cescau said that the food industry could bean agent of change by doing the right things itself. He said that many Unilever offices and factories run basic health checks, and provide free fruit and gym facilities.

"If we all ran programmes of this kind, we could have a measurable impact on the health of European citizens."

Public Education

With food so cheap, so plentiful and so tempting, the best way to address poor nutrition and obesity over the long-term is education, said Cescau. But to create the necessary level of understanding, a major programme of public education is needed.

"I feel companies and brands have a role to play,"​ he said. "Many of us use sponsorship programmes to promote physical activity and sport. Food companies are well placed to do this."

Cescau did add several caveats however. For example, he argued that obesity remained a multi-faceted problem that had as much to do with the lives people lead as the food they eat.

"If you take one nation Britain and track consumption data back to the end of the war, then what you find is that the British are not taking in as many calories in 2005 as they did in 1945,"​ he said.

"The big difference between now and 60 years ago is that they are expending far fewer calories. Let us never forget this. Here are two sides to the obesity equation diet and physical activity."

Related topics: Market Trends

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