The pilot of the District Council Nutrition Award Scheme was launched in Northern Ireland in 2010 comprising a three-tiered – gold, silver and bronze – award. Awards are allocated based on the total score achieved from an assessment form which is completed by environmental health officers. The award assessment and guidance was developed building on a similar scheme in Wales.
The aims are to:
- increase accessibility to healthy tasty food
- inspire food businesses to provide and promote healthier food choices
- encourage the public to choose healthier menu items
- reward food businesses who make healthier choices easier for consumers
- support environmental health officers to promote, assess and provide feedback on healthier options
The pilot Nutrition Award Scheme was voluntary and was piloted in 17 District Councils and involved the provision of guidance documents and subsequent assessment by environmental health officers (EHOs) of participating food businesses. Food businesses were selected to participate in the scheme if broadly compliant with food hygiene safety requirements.
The specific aims of the evaluation were to:
- identify practical issues for food businesses taking up the award, relating to Award documentation: feedback from EHOs: cost implications and perceived effects
- assess the effects of the Award on practices of food businesses in terms of menu reformulation; kitchen practices and skills and continued participation
- identify implementation issues and possible solutions to any barriers experienced by EHOs in relation to the adequacy of the documentation; delivery; assessment; sustainability of the award and training needs
In order to meet the aims of the study the research was conducted in five phases:
- analysis of the Assessment Form database created from one hundred and seventeen businesses
- eight site visits to catering businesses
- eighty six telephone surveys of participating food businesses
- eight interviews with EHOs
- focus groups with sixteen EHOs
Overall, the vast majority of food businesses (90%) believe the scheme is well conceived and is a good approach to helping people eat more healthily when they eat out. A similar majority (91%) plan to continue participating in the scheme. Nearly all of the businesses (94%) recognise the importance of the aims of the scheme and are highly motivated to continue improving or trying to improve their scores. Most food businesses (88%) believe that there are direct business benefits associated with achieving a high award - providing a dual motivation to participate and succeed, with benefits to both the business and their customers.
Generally, participation in the scheme appears to have precipitated some degree of cultural change, with 85% of businesses agreeing that participation has led to thinking more about their cooking methods, the food they provide and the ingredients they use. Broadly, these findings provide encouragement that a national roll-out will deliver positive benefits.
EHOs thought the scheme was a good idea and would work well as consumers were becoming increasingly aware of the need to maintain a healthier lifestyle. Concerns raised included: a lack of consistency in the assessment process and the scheme’s relevance across a range of food businesses.
A number of the themes relating to scheme improvements emerging from the food businesses, including a perceived need to tailor the assessment forms to different types of food premises, calls for a District Council led advertising campaign for the scheme ,more detailed menu support and advice, including on children’s menus, and greater clarity regarding the steps needed to achieve each award level.
EHO recommendations for improvement covered a variety of issues. EHOs highlighted the need to:
- promote awareness and a positive orientation toward the scheme among food businesses and consumers alike by means of a promotional campaign, a communication strategy and a convincing business case for participation
- provide food businesses with a short leaflet rather than full guidance documents at the outset
- ensure consistency and standardisation in the assessment process to achieve robust results and reduce any perceptions of unfairness
- meet training needs, in particular on sections and scoring on the assessment