Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment
Uncorrected oral evidence: Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment
Tuesday 10 March 2020
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Members present: Lord Krebs (The Chair); Baroness Boycott; The Earl of Caithness; Lord Empey; Baroness Janke; Baroness Osamor; Baroness Parminter; Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick; Baroness Sanderson of Welton; Lord Whitty.
Evidence Session No. 15 Heard in Public Questions 106 - 111
I: Mark Laurie, Director, Nationwide Caterers Association.
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Q106 The Chair: Welcome to the second evidence session this morning in our inquiry into food, poverty, health and the environment. I welcome our witness. I will invite him to introduce himself in a moment.
For the record, this is being broadcast live on the Parliament website. Members have declared their interests and those are on written sheets of paper. You will have a copy of the transcript to comment on before it is published on the Committee’s website. Perhaps I could kick off by inviting you to introduce yourself.
Mark Laurie: I am director of the Nationwide Caterers Association. We are a trade association for small independent catering businesses. We predominantly work with street food and event and festival caterers, but we are increasingly working with small independent restaurants, some takeaways, hotels and even schools.
Our main focus is to distil food safety and other legislation into something that is understandable for small and micro businesses, to enable them to comply with the various legislation that exists. We help them with risk assessments, training and advice. We are partnered with the Royal Borough of Greenwich, a primary authority, and with Monmouthshire in Wales. We are involved in various schemes on “People and Planet”, and health, that are either related directly to what we are doing, or are CSR, which would be a blunt way of putting it. We are trying to do our bit, I guess. That is because we come from a slightly different perspective from other food businesses, which we will probably go into a bit further on.
One of the main reasons I am here is that we have been working for some time on a project called Eighth Plate, which is about salvaging waste food and distributing it to people who are living in poverty. That is something that runs at music festivals around the UK. We have also been involved in VegPower. We are currently developing a healthy food business app that will be available for free in five languages in about a year and a half. That will be about how small businesses run healthy food businesses that can actually make money. We see ourselves as supporting a fast-growing sector of the industry that has different priorities, arguably, from the rest of the food and beverage industry. It is quite a disrupter; it sees itself as disrupting the sector.
The Chair: What responsibilities do the people you represent have towards public health? I have to say that fast-food outlets in particular have not been portrayed in a positive light in the evidence we have heard so far. They sell highly processed food that is often less healthy and more profitable than non-processed foods. The demand for them is high because they capture the essence of what makes food delicious to people, even if it is bad for them. In the light of all of that, what options do your members have to shift towards healthier choices while remaining competitive?
Mark Laurie: For most food businesses, responsibility lies with the shareholders, or their responsibility is to the shareholders; their job is to maximise profits. It is the same for Sainsbury’s, a fish and chip shop or a market stall. Our members, especially in the last five to 10 years, are filling gaps in the market. The market is dominated by fast food. A lot of our guys are coming into it with the intention of selling healthy food, more like peasant food; it is food that will get you through the day and is fuel, but it is not full of junk and it is not drug food.
The Chair: I am not sure that I understood your answer. The first thing you said was that the responsibility for someone who runs a fast-food outlet is to make money.
Mark Laurie: Yes.
The Chair: If they have shareholders, the responsibility is to their shareholders, but if they are a family-owned business it is just to make money. People like junk food, so making money means selling junk food. Is that the end of the story?
Mark Laurie: In one sense it is because you are asking businesses to do something that is contrary to business: to sell food that people do not necessarily want, that costs more and will go off quicker. We are either changing the game or skirting around the edges of it. That is how I see it.
There are lots of reasons why people eat unhealthy food. Price is one small part of it. With small businesses, especially franchises, people want to take on something that they know they can earn a living from. They know that people want a certain type of food. They know that the “McDonaldisation” of food is that you do not even need humans to make it necessarily; it is all about making it in a machine or in a system whereby the less skilled the staff are, and the lower the costs are, the better. It is a race to the bottom: how do we get the cheapest products we can get, full of sugar and salt and things people like, and flog them with nice marketing?
The Chair: It is very frank of you to say that. Thank you.
Q107 Baroness Boycott: How can consumers be provided with the right information at the right time to allow them to make decisions? We have measures on nutritional labelling, but are they appropriate? A lot of our witnesses have talked about it being pretty muddled and asymmetric, and it is hard to find out what you are eating when you buy it.
Mark Laurie: Yes, it is very hard to find out what you are eating. There needs to be understanding of that. What do those calories mean? What does that salt mean for your personal health? Are people making decisions based on that? There is stuff coming out of Chile at the moment, where they have gone for cigarette-style packaging for junk foods and drug foods. The amount of canned pop that people are drinking has dropped dramatically.
You could be very blunt about what people are eating: “This has no nutritional value whatsoever, but it will make you feel good for about 10 minutes”.
Baroness Boycott: But we are unlikely to get that precise data on the front of a can of Coca-Cola. What could you reform? What would be smart?
Mark Laurie: Because most of our customers are micro businesses, from my perspective the big fear, if you brought in labelling, or whatever labelling you bring in, would be how they comply with it because they do not have the resources of bigger companies. For example, we are looking to develop healthy eating options in street food. We would like to go to local authorities and say, “We would like to put in street food interventions and have local people cooking hearty food between the chicken shops and the schools”. Do we then have to send all of those products off for testing to prove what their calorific value is and how much fat and salt is in them, or can someone just do chicken stew with rice?
The bigger companies could comply and get the labelling right, but my fear would be that, if you brought in compulsory labelling and it was too complicated, the smaller businesses would lose out, or they would end up mislabelling, which arguably is worse than labelling it.
Baroness Boycott: Are you saying that there is nothing you could do?
Mark Laurie: I liked the traffic light system. It was something that made sense to customers, and it makes sense to businesses, but it is how you define red, green and amber and how businesses actually deliver that. A guy or a lady on a market stall is making food fresh every day; they are not necessarily weighing everything out in the same way as you would in a factory. My main concern would be whether the labelling is accurate. The clearer it is—even a skull and crossbones or a red light—if it is a treat food, it should be treated as a treat food and that is what people should be told. Anything other than that is misrepresentation, in my opinion.
The worst food that is of no nutritional value is the cheapest, but vegetables are hard to deal with if you do not know how to cook. People do not necessarily have the facilities to cook. We are moving into a world where people have less and less time for cooking and things like that. The delivery apps are doing more and more business every day. It is very difficult for people to make positive decisions, and the less money they have, the harder it is for them to make positive decisions. It is very difficult for people and it is very easy for people to have fast food.
Q108 Lord Empey: We have heard in our evidence from retailers that one area where government regulation could be effective is in encouraging healthier choices in mandating responsible portion sizes. I would like to know your view on that.
Secondly, what do you believe has been the impact of voluntary reformulation targets? We have talked about salt reductions and a mandatory levy such as the sugar tax. What impact have those measures had on the businesses that you represent?
Mark Laurie: Could you say the first part of the question again?
Lord Empey: We have heard in evidence from retailers about portion size and that encouraging healthier choices is mandating responsible portion sizes. Of course, McDonald’s is on the triple decker. If they get an actor with a mouth big enough, maybe we will get to a quadruple burger. They are moving in that direction. What is your view on that?
Mark Laurie: There is an issue in catering. A lot of people buy based on size. I guess that size is relative to value in people’s minds, especially if they do not have very much money. A massive portion of chips will probably seem like great value, whereas, in the nutrition they are getting from it, it is terrible value.
I had a chat with someone from the fish friers’ association. I said, “Why do you guys always sell massive portions of chips?” Whenever we buy fish and chips, we get a massive portion that would feed a whole family. I said, “Why do you do it? No one eats them; they just throw them all in the bin. It is a waste of food and money”. He said, “It is a race to give the biggest portions because that is what people want”.
It is very difficult. If people are subconsciously thinking, “I want the most food I can get”, that is what the food businesses will offer. A lot of the time the supersize-type stuff is where the profit is. McDonald’s main profits are on the chips and the soft drink. If they can supersize that and get you to pay an extra 50p for some sugary water, that is where they make good money.
If you were going to regulate anything, I would be keener on regulating drug foods per se—things that are purely addictive and give joy, but do not offer anything of nutritional value—rather than portion size. I do not know if people ate fewer Mars bars because Mars bars were made smaller. I do not know if that is the case.
The real problem is the food that people are eating. If you are having four or five pieces of fried chicken, the problem is the fried chicken, not how many pieces you are having. I do not know how you could mandate portion size in a micro business or at the small out-of-home caterer level. I do not know how that could be managed. You would be better off working with those businesses so that they understand that what they are selling their customers is not helpful and to look at moving towards better food. The problem is that, because there is no baseline, everyone sells the cheapest, most profitable and most wanted food, which is not necessarily the healthiest.
Baroness Boycott: Did you say drug food?
Mark Laurie: Drug foods.
Baroness Boycott: What is that as against junk food?
Mark Laurie: For example, you might get something out of fried chicken and chips, but you will not get anything out of a packet of sweets.
Baroness Boycott: Which is the drug food? The sweets?
Mark Laurie: The drug foods are crisps, sweets and fizzy pop.
Baroness Boycott: They are slightly addictive, or very addictive.
Mark Laurie: Yes, I would say so. I do not have the science behind it but they are very popular.
Baroness Boycott: I had not heard the expression, Thank you.
Mark Laurie: A lot of people buy food for a feeling, especially people who are very rushed. They have very limited time. They might work long hours. They might have an hour to see their kids or whatever it may be. People are buying food for comfort or to feel a little bit better about themselves at that moment, rather than thinking, “Oh, I need to stop myself having heart disease in 20 years”.
Lord Whitty: What proportion of the takeaway, out-of-home trade as a whole are genuinely small businesses and what proportion would you say, broadly speaking, are parts of chains or franchises where the centre has some ability to set standards?
Mark Laurie: I think 95% of our customers are micro businesses.
Lord Whitty: Literally micro businesses.
Mark Laurie: Yes; mom and pop businesses or sole traders working on market stalls. If they are successful in the markets or at events, they sometimes open restaurants or takeaway venues. It is a significant proportion. A lot of chicken shops and things like that are franchises; it is a significant proportion. They are small franchises of 10 or 15 restaurants in a group.
Q109 Lord Whitty: That is the background to this. We have received evidence about the proliferation of fast-food outlets, particularly in areas of deprivation, and the effect that has on the health of the general population there. What can be done to ensure healthier local food environments and healthier choices in those areas? Some people have suggested that it should be part of the planning system and that the local authority should take some responsibility for minimising the concentration of fast food outside schools, for example. What is your members’ view of that?
Mark Laurie: Again, it is an issue of practicality. We would like local authorities to allow us to put healthy food on the high street or into communities, but it is very difficult for us to get licences to allow non-bricks and mortar businesses. There are schools surrounded by chicken shops, especially in poorer areas. They provide a service on some level. There was a report by Shift a few years ago called Box Chicken. One of the findings was that chicken shops acted as a safe social space for kids. Youth clubs had gone, so it was a place where you could go at lunchtime and meet your girlfriend. It is warm and dry. You can get a nice bit of food. All your mates go there and you are not at school.
There is more to those places than we give them credit for. We see them as leeching off society, taking money off poor people and making them ill, but they deliver what people want in many ways. It amazes me that they are allowed to be so close to schools, but I do not know in practical terms how the planning system could cope with changing that. Would you close down existing businesses?
Lord Whitty: If we accept the social role and the convenience role, could the Government nevertheless do something to improve the standards and the healthiness of the food that is provided in those outlets?
Mark Laurie: Yes, but that would mean regulating against fast food. It is whether there is a desire within government to do that. When there are no standards for what people should or should not be selling, businesses will operate within the field of play. If there are no rules in the field of play, they will just try to maximise profits. If you change the rules in the field of play, they will change how they play the game, but they will still be looking to make a profit. Food businesses can make money from healthy food, but not if there is a chicken shop next to them.
Lord Whitty: But it is whether the chicken shops themselves could be subject to some fairly straightforward regulation.
Mark Laurie: Yes, they could be. You either tax the unhealthy stuff or you subsidise the healthy stuff, but you need to make it relevant to people. You need that intervention because at the moment it is just, “I’m going to the chicken shop for dinner”. Are people going to say, “Oh well, I feel like a salad today from the chicken shop”? Or are they going to say, “Actually, that healthy chicken stew is now cheaper than the fried chicken, so I will come back on Friday with my kids and have the fried chicken as a treat and we will have the stew today”?
Food businesses just want to sell food that will sell. They will change what they are doing, although maybe not in some of the franchises. They are just about how cheap you can get chicken and chuck it in a fryer, but a lot of food businesses will be more than happy to change what they are doing.
I have spoken to thousands of start-ups over the last few years, and the number of them that start up with great intentions and end up putting protein in bread is quite shocking. They want to sell good food, but when they are up against 10 other caterers and there are lovely burgers and other things on offer, it becomes an issue for them. If people like to eat out of home more and more, we need to offer them food that is suitable for eating out of home on a regular basis, when not every time you eat out is a treat. If you are eating treat food every day or multiple times a day, it is going to impact on your health.
The Chair: Do you have data on the average price of, say, chicken and chips in a fast-food outlet? How much does it cost to buy a meal?
Mark Laurie: It is about £2.99. It depends on what you are buying, but it is about £2.99 for a pretty standard meal.
The Chair: You would get a full plate of food but it would be chicken and chips.
Mark Laurie: Yes, and a soft drink. A fizzy drink, probably.
The Chair: Do you know how many calories that would contain?
Mark Laurie: More than enough. It is treat food. In the developing world, no one is calorie counting because it is, “How much food can I get?” In this country, advice for people 100 years ago was about how many calories they could get into themselves. Calories are not necessarily the problem. People are eating only unhealthy food and their lifestyle does not suit that. Calories can be quite confusing for people. Someone mentioned earlier the calories in a bag of doughnuts and the calories in a steak. You are always better off eating the steak than the doughnuts, regardless of which has more calories. I think that can be confusing for people.
The Chair: I want to go back to make sure that I understood what you said in response to Lord Whitty. In relation to the abundance of, let us call them, chicken shops or fast-food outlets selling junk food in certain areas, particularly in deprived areas, I think what I heard you say was that it would not be enough to try to open a salad bar in those areas because people would automatically go to the fast-food or junk-food outlet anyway. That would be their preference.
Mark Laurie: Yes.
The Chair: Does it flow from that that if local authorities had the powers, which we believe they do, to not grant permission under certain circumstances for fast-food outlets, you think that would be a sensible measure for public health?
Mark Laurie: I would probably recommend working with the caterers first. A better option would be to get all the fried chicken shops to not sell fried chicken. If you ban food businesses from opening, you are not replacing them. It is not that Leon is going in because Greggs came out; there is just an empty shop. You have to provide affordable alternatives for people, and they have to be appealing.
I am not saying that I have cracked this or that I know all the answers, but you need to create food that people are comfortable eating and in an environment where they are comfortable buying or eating it. It can be healthy and still make them feel good and as if they are eating out or treating themselves in some way, but it is not necessarily deep fried, highly processed or cheap imported meat.
The Earl of Caithness: If one was to introduce immediately, say, a traffic light system for all food so that the chicken and chip shop had a sign saying, “This is unhealthy”, do you think it would make any difference to the way people behaved?
Mark Laurie: Yes, I do, and, more importantly, if it said on the menu in the chicken shop or the fast-food outlet, “This is basically a heart attack in a bun” in red, or, “This is perfectly healthy but do not have it every day”, or, “This is good, everyday nutritious food”, it would impact on people.
The Earl of Caithness: Would your members be happy that on every menu every item has to be starred?
Mark Laurie: I do not think they would necessarily have a problem with it. The problem they would have is whether they would have to send every dish off to a lab to get it tested to prove a certain level of health. That would cause all kinds of problems for them, especially because we work with independent caterers who change their menus. Every time they change their menu, do they have to send it off to get it tested again so that they can prove whether it is a green or an amber? That would be where the problem would come in, but the clearer you are with people, the more chance you have of getting the results you want.
Baroness Janke: I am interested in the treat food you were talking about and giving people what they want. How much do you think image and advertising has an effect? We are seeing lots of fashionable stuff with vegan food and so on. In my city of Bristol we have ethnic food particularly, but not necessarily unhealthy food. We only have to think about how fashionable McDonalds became. I know that people like it and it is treat food, but there is also a kind of image.
Do you feel that there is any mileage in trying to get some of those more fashionable ideas? You were talking about price, and some people have introduced street food, certainly in my city, where it has become very fashionable. I cannot remember what they are called now but there are little curry houses all over Bristol that originated in cheap food in streets and markets. Is there any mileage in looking down that route a bit?
Mark Laurie: Personally I work in street food, so I am biased. I think that street food offers a real opportunity to intervene and offer people healthy food in the community at the critical points where they buy. People have patterns of buying, and what they eat depends a lot on where they go in their day. With street food, costs are far lower so you can sell food cheaper. You can compete more directly with low-cost fast food. Certainly in more deprived areas we have food deserts, where it is very difficult to get healthy food. If you can buy healthy food, it tends to be raw, and then you need the time and resources to process it and turn it into nice, healthy food.
Companies would not spend billions of pounds on marketing and advertising if it did not work. The companies that sell processed food spend the most money on advertising. There is a pretty obvious correlation. There are vegetable adverts on TV and I think that is fantastic, but as someone once said to me, “The confectionery subsidises the carrots”. There is a reason why there is chocolate at the till: it makes money. We have to understand that one of the main reasons we all think, “If I eat a Big Mac it’s going to make me feel happy”, is that every 20 minutes we see a message saying that a Big Mac will make us happy.
Baroness Sanderson of Welton: We talked about local authorities as regards regulation of shops, but you mentioned earlier that it is very difficult for you. Are you referring to street food? Would it be difficult for you, in places where there are food deserts, if you were to give street food options in places that offer a healthier choice? Is that very difficult for you with the local authorities and the regulations?
Mark Laurie: It is difficult working with local authorities because there are so many of them.
Baroness Sanderson of Welton: But how do the regulations apply to street food specifically?
Mark Laurie: In theory, every local authority could enable street trading licences and market trading licences, and put conditions on them about the food they are serving. It is almost about need. What is the point in having a fried chicken market stall next to loads of fried chicken shops?
Baroness Sanderson of Welton: But you could have a healthier alternative.
Mark Laurie: Yes. That is certainly something that would need very little regulation. It would need very little change. It would just need a change of attitude.
Baroness Sanderson of Welton: But it would change the market.
Mark Laurie: Yes, it would completely change the market. The CIH report showed that, when they put fruit and veg outside tube stations, people were buying it. A lot of it is about where people are going in the day. If they get up in the morning, get the kids ready for school, drop the kids off, go and see their mum and maybe go to work, to the doctors and then pick the kids up and go home, what route have they travelled? If they have not come across any fresh food that they can afford on that route, they are not going to buy any. It is that simple, especially when you add in that they do not have a credit card or a car. People eat what is in front of them that day. You need to put an option in front of them. People do not choose unhealthy food out of spite; they choose it because that is what they know, that is what they can afford and that is what is in front of them.
A lot of our guys work at music festivals, where it is actually treat food. You are allowed to treat yourself because you are at a party, but I would not eat that every day. My customers would not be looking to sell that every day. There are simpler options. It might be about empowering people in communities to cook and deliver food in those communities. There is a lot of push-back against people being told what to do, what to like, what is good for them, what is healthy for them and things like that.
I am based in Birmingham. You could do a veggie biryani for 30p and sell it for a couple of quid, and it would be beautiful and healthy. That kind of food could be available on the streets for everyone. If it is Friday and you want to buy a bit of fried chicken to go with it, then cool. It is all the wrong way round at the moment for what you guys are trying to achieve.
Q110 Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick: Perhaps we have already been discussing the issue of environmental sustainability, but what actions or steps can retailers and caterers take to ensure that the food they provide is environmentally sustainable?
Mark Laurie: It is very difficult to know what food you are buying and where you are getting it from. We all have a bit of false confidence about what we are buying and where we are getting it from. Sorry; could you ask the question again?
Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick: What actions can retailers and caterers take to ensure that the food they are providing is environmentally sustainable? Surely, if you are buying fresh food, you probably know the provenance of that.
Mark Laurie: Maybe. On sustainability, my understanding is that the vast majority of greenhouse gases occur before the farm gate, and everything after that, say 10% to 20%, is caterers and waste processing, whatever it may be. We looked into this recently as an industry, because we were charged with halving the GHG impact of food at music festivals. It is easy to do if you do not take on the 90% before the farm gate. We can solve all the food waste problems, but it is about how the food is being produced and what the impact of that food is.
Do people understand it? I was at an event in Manchester last week. It was a grass-roots version of this with lots of people from the community talking about how to improve the food system. Somebody said, “It’s terrible that no one eats seasonally any more. What happened to eating turkey at Christmas?” I said, “Turkey is not a seasonal product. It is there all the time; it is an animal”. There is a lack of understanding of what is environmentally friendly. With all of these different terms there is so much noise that people do not actually understand what environmentally friendly is. People are only just realising the impact of beef and ruminating animals. The best advice is to drink tap water. If you want to have a genuine impact on the environment in the short term and do very little damage to the world, drink tap water. It is the only thing you can trust.
The Chair: Do you think that people who have chicken shops, for example, know where the chicken comes from? They would know the immediate supplier—
Mark Laurie: The cash and carry.
The Chair: But do they know if it was reared in Brazil, Thailand or in Britain? Or is that not a concern and it is about price?
Mark Laurie: I imagine it is about price. In our sector, we have chicken shops in street food. There are businesses that have evolved into running their own fried chicken businesses, but they are high end. It is about 10 quid for chicken and chips. They use high provenance ingredients and their process takes three days before you even get the chicken in the fryer, but they are not necessarily the problem. The problem is “How cheaply can we get it?” They are all competing on the high street at the minimum cost. I do not think that people are that bothered.
One of the things that came out from the Yellowhammer report was that the register for organic food is on paper in the UK. That was one of the risks of Brexit. If that is not open to fraud, I do not know what is. There are all kinds of potential problems with people thinking they know what they are eating. There is an app called Happerley that was set up by a farmer to prove that the meat you are eating is from where you got it. He had gone into a butcher’s in Herefordshire and ordered some Herefordshire beef. He asked the butcher which farm the meat had come from and the butcher said, “I don’t know; it’s from Australia”, but the breed was Herefordshire, and it is sold here. The labelling of food is confusing for people. I do not think that anyone, hand on heart, necessarily knows what they are eating. The more processed it is, the harder it is to trace.
Q111 Baroness Parminter: One of the things we are focusing on particularly is making sure that everyone can get healthy food and food that has been produced sustainably. Are there any key policy areas that you think are important in that regard? As a supplementary question, to be clear about your members, are they mainly independents?
Mark Laurie: Yes.
Baroness Parminter: You do not have anybody like Sodexo or Compass. That is a different end of the catering market.
Mark Laurie: A completely different end, yes. Our guys might work for them at, say, a race track, but they are a totally different proposition. On the first question, do you mean what I would suggest?
Baroness Parminter: Yes. If you and your members wanted to ensure that there was healthy, sustainably produced food available to everyone, including the poorest in the community, what do you think would have to change in the marketplace to enable that to happen?
Mark Laurie: I would say let us have the opportunity to sell it to them. We cannot take on the shops, but we could go out and sell healthy food in communities, or we could get people from these communities to sell, essentially, home-cooked food or show them how to do it in a safe, hygienic and compliant manner. There is a real appetite for people to sell home-cooked food to other people. We all love home-cooked food. We love treats as well. We have just forgotten the whole home-cooked food side. It is about celebrating different foods as well. There is a lot of food from around the world that is really healthy and does not come across our radar. Street food is good for that.
We should look at the full cycle of what food costs. I think Henry Dimbleby touched on it earlier. The problem with sustainability is that the end cost of the product is never factored into the initial price. The end cost of the fried chicken dinner is £20,000 or £50,000 to the NHS, or whatever it may be. We are not factoring in all the different problems that are being caused. Level up the playing field and make it possible for people to sell and compete with healthy food.
The Chair: Thank you very much indeed. It has been a very interesting and helpful session to us. It was great. As I said at the beginning, a transcript of the session will be made available. It will be shown to you to make any corrections or comments that you wish to make before it is finally published on our website.
In the aftermath of this, if there are any points that you feel you would like to follow up in writing, please do not hesitate to write to us. In the meantime, thank you very much indeed.