Food legislation – a help or a hindrance?

Ollie Brand

The mere mention of the word ‘legislation’ or ‘regulation’ can send many businesses running for the hills. How are hospitality and food business dealing with new and complex food legislation in these challenging times? And how effective is this legislation anyway?

The foodservice industry has had its fair share of setbacks over the last few years, so it’s no wonder that the mere mention of the word ‘legislation’ or ‘regulation’ sends most businesses running for the hills. Yet, new and complex food legislation is still being fired at the sector from all directions, with little consideration as to how businesses are expected to implement the changes, or what the impacts will be.

There is currently no single way, or central location available, to help capture the data needed to comply with all the different legislation. This makes implementation a challenge for many. Right now, with many hospitality firms fighting to keep their heads above water on a day-to-day basis, legislation simply becomes another problem to worry about and, unfortunately, the lack of perceived credibility around new regulations has led to a gaping disconnect between the sector and the powers that be.

Although enforced legislative requirements are out of the sector’s control, extracting the information needed to comply with them can be a huge headache. It also involves suppliers and other parties across the supply chain. Adding to the complexity, it seems the regulatory decision makers have little to no understanding of the impact - and subsequent ripple effect - these changes will have on food businesses.

One recent example is the 2021 Calorie Labelling regulation, which requires foodservice companies with over 250 people to provide calorie data on menus in a bid to combat the obesity crisis. However, calories (the energy we burn when eating different foods) bear scant relevance to the nutritional quality of the food. Further, aside from being very triggering for anyone with an eating disorder, calorie data can vary widely from person to person as well as from dish to dish. As Professor Tim Spector said in his book Spoon Fed: “Calorie estimates are often less accurate than we might hope, with studies showing that ‘the actual calorific content of a meal can deviate 200 per cent from the number on the menu’ and the deviation is nearly always an underestimate. Even if the numbers on the menu were accurate, they still do not reflect the ways in which humans obtain nutrients from food.”

This type of short-sighted decision making, can potentially have a deleterious impact on the food sector - and that is without considering the hidden cost to the economy in sourcing data that may not be readily available. Procuring calorie information for menus can be a long winded and complex task. Essentially it gives already stretched and under-resourced operators even more to do. In fact, some businesses that were already struggling may well have gone out of businesses because of it. It certainly runs counter to the Government’s promise to free businesses from unnecessary regulatory burden.

While regulation in some cases, such as identifying allergens present in food and recipes is an absolute must, and can be the difference of life or death, some legislation feels more like a tick box exercise that a ‘must have’, or a can that can be kicked down the road, and that is the frustration.

The Government legislation banning the promotion of HFSS (High in Fat Sugar and Salt) products that came into force in October 2022, for example, includes measures such as the ban of HFSS products advertised online and TV before 9pm. Whilst few could argue the rationale for this legislation, the restrictions on multibuy promotions in supermarkets and TV adverts have been delayed in response to the cost-of-living crisis. Further, many in the industry believe that this is nothing more than another major issue for the wider food sector to deal with, and many feel such legislation will likely carry little weight when it comes to changing consumer eating habits.

As well as placing a great administrative burden on businesses, regulation can also stifle creativity. This comes at a critical time when the food sector must innovate to survive and grow – creativity is perhaps now more important than ever. As legislative compliance becomes more complex and subject to frequent change, businesses will need to become more organised in how they operate day to day and this will require investment in the right technology to collate and report on data, as well as support and free up bandwidth within teams.

So, is food legislation a help or a hindrance?

When regulation is deployed in the right way and for the right reasons it is a help to businesses - as well as consumers. However, when it defies all logic or sense of purpose, it is very much a hindrance and becomes difficult to rally support, especially when many fear a U-turn in those regulations later down the line.

There is a further challenge when it comes to implementing legislation. For example, kitchen management technology in the foodservice sector must be tailored to the needs of the business. It is not just about the nuts and bolts of the tech either; your tech support team, like those at Zupa, need to be hands-on, have the knowledge, insight and ability to guide businesses and to support the day-to-day grind by automating processes and removing the admin burden that is often incurred by legislative change.

Managing regulations is also about being organised and taking responsibility - about getting teams and suppliers onboard. It is also about communication, whether that is within the businesses itself or within the wider supply chain. If legislative change is not communicated properly, in terms of the outcomes and reasoning behind it, mistakes and delays can arise. Likewise, if businesses don’t keep up to date with critical legislation such as allergens management, the real-life risk is far greater for them. This is where using the right technology to simplify legislative burden, undoubtedly comes into its own.

It seems, therefore, that legislation can both help and harm businesses, depending on the level of complexity and the onus of burden on those who need to implement it. More thought is needed into how legislation not only improves the lives and health of consumers but also how they will work in practice to ensure unintended consequences are minimised as far as possible.