Over many years, the desire for unhealthy products has been “encouraged and manipulated” by the in-store and retail environment and it will take “a more regulatory approach” to undo this, the experts noted in their new report, Identifying and understanding the factors that can transform the retail environment to enable healthier purchasing by consumers.
Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling, and his co-author, professor of marketing Steve Burt, set out to examine how the retail food sector can be transformed to encourage shoppers to consume healthier products.
What they found was an “overwhelmingly ‘toxic’ or obesogenic food retail environment”, which has driven consumers towards unhealthy products and seen obesity levels remain “stubbornly” high.
Current interventions are clearly not working, the experts said. “Simply enhancing healthy product stimuli and relying on the individual is not likely to work,” they explained. “For effects to be substantial, rapid and sustained, there needs to be more control on the whole range of stimuli and a more level playing field between healthy and unhealthy products.”
Sugar taxes and standards
The findings are significant given that the report was commissioned by Food Standards Scotland, the government’s advisory body on diet. FSS – which recently gave the country’s food industry 12 months to come up with more effective self-regulatory solutions – has backed the recommendations in the report.
These include further taxes on sugar, fat and salt to encourage reformulation and resizing of products. The experts also proposed new laws on product pack displays, pricing and promotions to help rebalance what’s available to consumers in grocery stores.
A new “food retail standard” would also create a better balance of promotional and provisioning activities between healthy and unhealthy products, they suggested. Previous research by consumer group Which? found that more than half of supermarket promotions were for unhealthy foods.
But whilst these interventions might look good on paper, in practice they can be far more problematic, the experts admitted: “… they interfere in core retail activities. Quantifying the impact of these interventions is very difficult due to the breadth and variability of the retail landscape.”
The authors predicted that their findings would not go down well amongst food retailers and manufacturers. Indeed, they are proposing a new approach to some of the food retail industry’s basic operating models. “This is a sector and a topic where such overt regulation is not likely to be welcomed or easy,” they noted.
Ewan MacDonald-Russell, head of policy and external affairs at the Scottish Retail Consortium said any measures on pricing and promotions would need to be done through regulation or legislation. “It’s not feasible, or legal, to ask retailers to voluntarily take collective measures in this area,” he told FoodNavigator.
In a nod towards the need for regulation, he also suggested the onus is on government “to take steps to ensure the whole food and drink industry is working collectively, on a level playing field, to ensure no matter where customers shop or consume they are able to make healthy informed choices”.
Though retailers appear to be warming to the idea of regulation to tackle obesity, manufacturers remain steadfastly opposed to the idea. Food and Drink Scotland will fight all additional food taxes, said the organisation’s CEO David Thomson.
Thomson argued that processors have been reformulating products and reducing sizes for years with many going “much further” than labelling laws require “by voluntarily providing a simplified version of nutrition information on the front of pack”.
Professor Sparks said voluntary initiatives and ‘simple’ healthy promotion have failed. “The time to consider a range of actions to alter the architecture of in-store choice may now be upon us,” he added.