Cooperate with competitors to remove reformulation risk, say experts

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

A long-term corporate strategy is crucial: "Companies that have lost sales as a result of reformulation have probably gone about it too fast... It may take several years - even a decade - to show the benefit of reformulation," says Tam Fry.
A long-term corporate strategy is crucial: "Companies that have lost sales as a result of reformulation have probably gone about it too fast... It may take several years - even a decade - to show the benefit of reformulation," says Tam Fry.

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Food companies need to come together and form 'ethical cartels' for successful reformulation, according to three food industry experts.

Earlier this year it came to light that the UK coalition government’s Responsibility Deal may have derailed​ what had been the world’s most successful reformulation programme, to reduce salt in the UK diet.

But what made it so successful in the first place – and what should be done to prevent future schemes from fizzling out?

For Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, there are three crucial elements to successful reformulation – it must be incremental, imperceptible and invisible. Small changes should be implemented so gradually that consumers do not notice a change in taste.


But while this unobtrusive strategy is increasingly recognised as a recipe for reformulation success, industry is often reluctant to embrace it. Why?

For Winkler, companies are afraid of exposing themselves to a competitive risk – if they reduce the salt content of a product but their main competitors don’t, consumers will simply switch brands.

"One criticism that crops up is that people think ‘Industry is getting together behind closed doors to conspire – it’s a cartel!’." 

"My answer is ‘Yes it’s a cartel, but it’s one that is in the public interest. It’s open, targets are published and it’s publically organised. It’s a good cartel and we need to approve it."

He said that in the 1980’s, three of Britain’s main bakers– Warburton’s, Allied Baker’s and British Bakeries - got together and pledged to reduce the salt content of their bread. But when Warburton’s did not stick to the joint targets, consumers ditched the other brands and switched to Warburtons because the difference in taste became perceptible. Since then, Warburton’s has grown to be bigger than the other two bakeries.

“This is a living example that it needs to be done together,”​ said Winkler.

The UK reformulation programme was successful because reduction targets were monitored not just publically - although the regular meetings held between industry and government to ensure compliance were undoubtedly important -  but also because industry monitored itself.

“It had a built-in self-reinforcement mechanism because all the companies checked the others to see if they were sticking to the targe​ts,” said Winkler.

Government support

Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council agreed on this need to eliminate competitive risk.

Incentivising companies to reformulate their products is not enough, especially if only a minority take action. What's needed is decisive government action to make all​ companies reformulate their products to make them healthier, to level the playing field. Even businesses agree.

A 2014 report called Careless Eating Costs Lives​ – sponsored by AB Sugar – called for the government to turn the public health Responsibility Deal from a voluntary initiative into law for all food and drink businesses.

For Tam Fry, expert advisor at Action on Sugar, public support could also be financial level.  

Reformulation should not be publically funded but it might be possible to negotiate re-payable medium to long-term Exchequer loans to pay for high-cost reformulations,” ​he said. 

But what’s the incentive?

But why should a company change the taste of a product that consumers know, love and buy?

For Winkler, the reputational gain from selling healthy products adds value to a brand.

“Heinz implemented a long-term strategy of reformulation. (…) From being the worst offenders in terms of nutritional content in the 1980s​, their products now feature [on consumer surveys] as the best examples for almost all categories,"​ he said.

“That is a sign that substantial reformulation is feasible whilst maintaining commercial success. Heinz is living proof.”

Others feel that manufacturers’ moral duty to produce food that will not make consumers ill should be enough of a motivation.

Crossley said:  “Food businesses have a moral responsibility to offer - at the very minimum - food that does no harm and that is healthy and nutritious. (...) It is the food industry's responsibility to deliver healthy food.”

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