The last 2019 Cross Party Group for Independent Convenience Stores, held last week, was a cracker. With all the excitement of the AGM (not really), it was almost too much to have three excellent presentations on retailing and the public health agenda. Together they formed a fascinating picture of the changing demands on retailers.
First up was Kathryn Neil the Head of the Scottish Government/Scottish Grocers’ Federation long-established Healthy Living Programme. She focused on the successes of the scheme and presented a series of examples of how the positive intervention had benefitted stores and consumers, leading to better fruit and veg intake and higher retailer margins and profits. With over 2300 stores in Scotland in the programme, and 66% of them in the most deprived areas, this is having a tangible effect. The Healthy Living tie in schools and its role as compliance auditor for the Healthcare Retail Standard were also noted.
Kathryn was followed by Colin Baird of the Scottish Government, who presented on a much more controversial topic – the plans for a Bill in 2020/21 on Restricting Unhealthy Food Products. Now I have ‘previous’ in this regard having challenged the CPG about retailers as social engineers and written a report for Food Standards Scotland on the potential restrictions and implications. Colin took us though the rationale for the Bill, the consultation (which closed earlier this year) and the possible directions of restrictions/regulations. This is superficially simple stuff, but a digression on defining cakes and biscuits in England and Scotland hinted at a darker reality.
The final speaker was Tony McGale, again of the Scottish Government, though this time on a less controversial topic – the introduction of the Best Start Foods Payment Card. This replacement for the Healthy Start Vouchers seems to be a more efficient and effective scheme with less stigma attached and more uptake. It is easier for retailers to operate as well. The Scottish Grocers’ Federation had been engaged in consultation, developing delivery, transitioning from the vouchers and deriving ongoing learning. This collaboration was a powerful testimony to the positive work of SGF in the health arena.
Not unsurprisingly perhaps, all the focus of the lively discussion session was on Colin Baird and the restrictions likely on retailers selling foods high in fat, saturated fats, salt and sugar. Points raised followed discussion lines from previous sessions and focused on the ‘nanny state’, the singling out of retailers, practicalities of implementation and the constant burden on retailers of interventions and controls which raised costs and affected viability. None of this is new and Colin pointed to the need for further collaboration and refinement on the practicalities. This is a case of ‘watch this space’.
For me this was déjà vu, giving my previous session at the CPG. Perhaps interestingly no-one really suggested that the proposed measures would not help combat obesity etc. The concern was more about the problems such restrictions would cause to operations. The nanny state and personal choice arguments are readily rebuffed (pay for your own health service at point of delivery for example) and there is a clear government locus here. The counterpoint of Healthy Living and its meagre budget (yet success) with the avalanche of spending on unhealthy food promotion is just too obvious and means personal choice is a fallacy in this market.
A final point often overlooked; Scotland should be proud it is leading in this arena. Tobacco was seen as an exemplar in discussion and the Healthcare Retail Standard and Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol were also noted. Deposit Return Schemes are also on their way. The HRS evaluation has been published and MUP is in the midst of a large complex evaluation with some initial results out and some research with small retailers due out in late spring.
Healthy Living and Healthy/Unhealthy food consumption are topics that will continue to be discussed and debated. Independent convenience stores do have a lot on their plate and government needs to recognise their role and value in positively promoting healthy living and working to improve the health of the nation. Despite tensions there is a strong sense of engagement. That is not to say that the topic is not controversial.