Overweight and obesity are significant public health issues in the UK. With one in six meals eaten outside of the home, caterers have an important role in providing information to their customers. Nutrition information enables consumers to have an informed choice and it encourages businesses to challenge the content of their menu choices. The Northern Ireland pilot has included suggestions from the previous 2009 FSA evaluation and the current Department of Health in England Responsibility Deal pledge. The pilot was targeted predominantly at small or medium sized businesses with a moderate number of outlets, the predominant food business type in the Northern Ireland context. These businesses are usually limited in their in-house technical expertise and standardisation of recipes and cooking methods. A number of UK multiples signed up to the Department of Health pledge while outlets in Northern Ireland displaying calorie information and food suppliers also shared their expertise and experience with the evaluators.
The process evaluation also investigated consumer awareness and understanding of calorie information in catering outlets and examined the role of this information in their decision-making when eating food outside the home.
This project was the process evaluation of a six month pilot on the display of calorie information in caterers in Northern Ireland from April 2012 to October 2012. The pilot provided an opportunity for small and medium sized caterers to trial this now established scheme in a targeted number of their outlets and with additional technical support and assistance provided by nutritionists and FSA staff. First hand views and experiences gained of the participating caterers were captured in the process evaluation to help inform the structure of any future sustainable scheme for consumers in Northern Ireland.
The display of calorie information in a number of caterers also provided an opportunity to investigate awareness and understanding of calorie information and to examine the role of calorie information in their decision-making. The findings will inform future consumer education programmes.
The Policy Studies Institute in London was commissioned to carry out an independent evaluation of the pilot – the research objectives being:
- to explore the rationale and implications for food businesses participating in the display of calorie information at the point of decision when eating out
- to consider the impact of calorie information on Northern Ireland consumers’ understanding and use/application at the point of choice
The FSA is also interested in exploring the implications for UK companies with Head Offices and technical support outside of Northern Ireland and the role of the food suppliers and distributors.
The approach taken by the independent evaluators has included interviews with businesses of both Northern Ireland and UK multiples, consumer point of choice interviews and consumer focus groups. In addition an industry workshop was held to broaden engagement, and particularly to elicit business suggestions regarding future roll out of the scheme.
The rationale for businesses participating in the pilot are:
• improving public health,
• remaining competitive
• preparing for future legislation
The practical implications for businesses included:
• the understanding of technical expertise
• standardising of recipes
• understanding of the complexity of information in a format needed to process by nutritionists
• obtaining calorie information from suppliers and manufacturers
Largest cost was staff time in preparing the information for calorie counts with some cost saving reported with smaller portions and consistency in preparation. Changes to preparation and practices were minimal and included changes to types and quantities of ingredients and ongoing programmes of menu reformulation. There is scope for further support and promotion of the scheme.
Few consumers interviewed at point of choice used the information in making their choices with contextual and perceptual factors. With context, regular customers did not look at the menus or when they did they appeared to read but not notice the calorie information. Eating out is either functional eating and social/leisure eating with consumers more receptive to calorie information in functional settings. Currently, few people are using the information with the perception that calories relate to dieting and weight loss and see the issue as only associated with women.
Recommendations for future business engagement include:
- a communications strategy tailored to different business rationale
- detailed guidance on display and promotional materials
- involvement of suppliers
- training of catering staff
- business support in offering lower calorie options
For consumers, a public health campaign to raise awareness which is health-focused, with practical suggestions on how to use the calorie information, is recommended. Further suggestions include different approaches to customer groups and use of a variety of media, with the involvement of a number of agencies.