Calorie labelling: Trade warns pub food quality will take a hit

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Should food-serving pubs label calories on menus? Take our poll below
Should food-serving pubs label calories on menus? Take our poll below

Related tags Calorie labelling Nutrition

While groups concerned with health matters argue all pub and restaurant food menus must have calorie content labelled on them, Nicholas Robinson finds out why that’s not as simple as it sounds

Further calls from the Local Government Authority (LGA), as well as health lobby groups, for the Government to make calorie labelling on pub menus mandatory have been met with anger from the trade.

Earlier this month, the LGA urged the Government to force pub groups with 20 or more sites to “spell out” the calorific content of their food to customers to better combat obesity​ in the UK.

Pubs, restaurants and cinema chains with 20 or more sites should display calorie counts on menus to give consumers a better understanding of how healthy a particular food or drink is, says councillor Izzi Seccombe, who is also the organisation’s community and wellbeing spokeswoman.

Yet, such a move could potentially set the trade back in terms of food quality and preparation time at their own expense, Seafood Pub Company managing director Joycelyn Neve told the Publican’s Morning Advertiser. While the pub group currently has seven sites and would therefore not fit into the LGA’s proposals, labelling calorie content on menus was a step too far and could not be easily achieved by many pub groups, she says.

“Our USP (unique selling point) is that our food is fresh and changes daily. We offer customers constant choice because of this and we always have a lot of healthy and nutritious dishes.

‘Processed and pre-made food’

“The LGA’s calls for calorie labelling would not only take away this choice for customers and how frequently menus would change, but would surely move [some pubs] towards processed and pre-made food. Which is not healthy.”

There was also a risk of businesses alienating and insulting their customers by stating the obvious health credentials of their dishes, Neve claims. “I personally think it’s insulting to suggest a guest wouldn’t be able to understand that a robata-grilled swordfish skewer with baba ganoush and quinoa salad has a lower calorific content than a chicken and ham hock pot pie with proper chips.”

Chief executive of the Association of the Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) Kate Nicholls echoes Neve’s worries. Calorie labelling would be “extremely difficult and challenging” for any business that cooks produce from fresh, has a menu that changes daily and specials too, she warns.

Freshly made meals prepared and sold in many pubs would vary considerably, depending on how and where they were cooked, she says. “Even for those businesses selling a reasonably standard product across a chain, there may be variations [in nutritional content] and the cost of tracking, measuring and quantifying the calories per dish can be prohibitive. Menu labelling also adds complexity and cost.”

Pub companies at the lower end of the 20+ sites threshold, suggested by the LGA, would suffer more than those at the upper end, warns British Beer and Pub Association head of media Neil Williams. The extent and complexity of menus can vary significantly from site to site, he explains.

Other options

“Identifying calories for all menu items may not be warranted, and if there is capacity to highlight healthy or lighter options as part of menu design many pub groups do this already.”

  • Source: ​Neil Williams

Many food-serving operators would tend to focus on local and independent suppliers, who would find it impossible to consistently supply produce that was the same size and weight time after time. “Identifying calories for all menu items may not be warranted, and if there is capacity to highlight healthy or lighter options as part of menu design many pub groups do this already.”

However, those in favour of calorie labelling have argued that it could help cut the UK’s growing obesity epidemic. It is estimated that 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK are obese or overweight.

Sugar lobby group Action on Sugar’s campaign manager and nutritionist Jennifer Rosborough claims calorie labelling would allow customers to make informed choices. She also believes if pubs had to reveal the calorific content of their dishes, they would be forced to make them healthier.

‘Reformulate their recipes’

“Food businesses still have a long way to go in making their meal choices healthier,” Rosborough adds. “They need to reformulate their recipes to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat in their meals and commit to making affordable healthy options available.”

Nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton claims that, as well as making pub food healthier, portion sizes need to be looked at too. More could be done within the trade to offer consumers higher quality food in sensible portion sizes, she urges.

“Calorie labelling is just one aspect. With the complicity of pub chains, consumers have grown to expect cheap food in large portions, so it will not be easy to turn this around,” Ruxton argues. “However, I feel it is essential for public health and wellbeing.”

Although Ruxton and Rosborough believe pubs aren’t doing enough to ensure the food they serve is the healthier, the ALMR’s Nicholls argues otherwise. For instance, many operators have already started to highlight ‘lighter options’ on their menus, which could be more beneficial to customers than calorie labelling, she claims.

“Our research among guests shows many are less susceptible to calorie information in an eating-out setting, which is about food as an experience or indulgence, rather than a fuel.”

Yet, some of the larger pub groups, such as JD Wetherspoon, have displayed the calorie content of their food on menus for some time. However, the wider industry, for the moment, seems set against this barrage of nanny-state interference, which they fear could add cost and complexity to their businesses, as well as setting the rising standard of food in the sector back.


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