Claims that UK supermarkets are promoting more unhealthy foods than they were two years ago have met with criticism from the retail sector, which has been working with private-label and branded food manufacturers to improve the health profile of products.
Consumers have been seeing the effects of rising food prices on their grocery bills and, at the same time, may have less to spend as a result of the credit crunch. In this climate, supermarkets have been keen to appeal to shoppers as offering good value for money.
But a survey conducted by the National Consumer Council (NCC) in March found that fatty and sugary foods (branded and own-label) made up 54 per cent of in-store promotions – more than twice the proportion seen the last time the survey was conducted, in July 2006.
Meanwhile, only one in eight promotions was for fruit and vegetables, including frozen produce as well as fresh.
The NCC believes this finding shows “the lengths [supermarkets] will go to attract consumers during the credit crunch”.
The British Retail Consortium, however, has hit back at the findings, calling the report “misleading” since it was not conducted in the same month in 2006 and 2008.
It condemns BCC for “ignoring the fact that promotions are balanced across the year”. BRC food director Andrew Opie pointed out that more promotions are available for treat foods at Easter time, which this year fell in March.
While fruit and vegetables are promoted all year round, they are promoted “more heavily in spring and summer when supplies are more plentiful”.
“The NCC would find a different picture in summer”, Opie said.
Called Cut-price, what Cost?, the survey was conduced across eight UK supermarkets: Sainsbury’s, Co-Op, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Asda, Tesco, Somerfield, and Morrisons.
Each store was assessed on nutritional content of own-brand products, use of labelling schemes like traffic light labelling and/or guidance daily amounts, in-store promotions, and consumer information and advice.
A spokesperson for the BCC told FoodNavigator.com that the criticism relating to Easter promotions in March is not justified, since Easter promotions like chocolates, Easter eggs, biscuits, and hot cross buns were excluded from the findings.
She said that the BCC prefers to conduct the survey in the same month of the year each time, but this was not possible in 2008 since the council is in the throes of a merger with two other consumer organisations, Energy Watch and Post Watch.
For the findings on fruit and vegetable promotions, she agreed that not as many fresh fruits and vegetables are available in March as in the summer, not there were not many discounts on what was available.
“The seasonality argument does not hold for frozen produce,” she added.
The BCC did note that all retailers have made improvements in the salt content of their own-label products, in line with targets set by the Food Standards Agency to reduce the nation’s salt intake by 2010.
But it said it would like to see them moving faster on reducing salt, fat, saturated fat and sugar in own-brand products.
But Opie maintained that such reformulation needs to take place slowly.
“Retailers continue to develop healthier recipes but that has to go at a pace customers are comfortable with,” he said. “No-one gains if customers reject new versions as bland or tasteless”.
The NCC’s report is available here .