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It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that 2020 has been a challenging year for independent catering businesses across the UK. The covid pandemic has meant the closure of outdoor events, catering functions and significant limitations on restaurants and pubs. However, covid highlighted the risks of a more insidious epidemic in the UK- obesity.
The prime minister’s damascene moment on unhealthy lifestyles and the role of food and drink within that was brought about by complications with covid-19, attributed to his being overweight.
The government are now embarking on an attempt to tackle the obesity epidemic, especially amongst children, through the ban of online marketing of high fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) product advertising, proposed for 2022.
Indie food businesses have limited resources and time when it comes to marketing their products, however, community building social network channels such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have provided a platform – a playing field leveller – for the growth of the indie food sector over the past decade. Could street food have happened without Twitter? Social media made word of mouth a global possibility, but now the government is looking to ban online images of food that may cause obesity. We believe that this will strip the independent food sector of their key route to market, their capacity to build a brand and to grow their business. They are not banning brands, so both the golden arches and clowns with free toys are not being banned, but #foodporn could be.
We believe that the government must exempt micro food businesses from this legislation, but we need your help to do it.
Over the past decade, agile use of social media has enabled many NCASS members to build a brand, to get their product in view of potential customers and to build a customer base. Arguably, the early success of food trucks (USA) and its UK cousin street food could be attributed to online social media posts. Originally and arguably, Twitter, now Instagram or TikTok.
The growth of the independent food sector was in many ways facilitated by social media – and yet now our route to market could be closed down. So many NCASS members pivoted during lockdown offering cook, chill, click and collect, groceries, drive throughs. Under the proposed ban, they would not be able to post pictures of their food if HFSS measures go ahead. Many artisanal independents would not be able to show their produce on social media. Whether its wedding cake producers losing their only way to access the market, ice cream parlours, mobile bars or burger joints, they will all disappear from social media.
Small independent food businesses make use of social media to build communities of customers online, its free marketing allows people to find others with common interests. In theory, at least most social media customers are 14 are over and arguably, any young person at an indie restaurant or food truck, would not be buying the food as they would attend with their parents. I am not aware of a street food event where children are allowed unattended.
The Department of Health & Social Care alongside the Advertising Standards Authority are looking to prevent people, particularly young people, from being bombarded with content for ‘drug foods;’ foods that have no nutritional value, but make you feel good, if only briefly. You can read more on the proposed changes here.
However, it is not the independent food businesses that are offering toys, apps or games to children if they sign up to a mailing list or buy a product, our social media accounts are not full of celebrity endorsements and free offers. They don’t collect masses of data on young people and use that to hone or even deliver bespoke advertising to people unaware that it is happening. In terms of catering, it is the fastfood chains bombarding people with advertising that is becoming increasingly worrying. Businesses that do not necessarily sell on the appeal of their food, their brands are so strong, they don’t need to.
It is not clear that these measures will reduce obesity in the target or other groups, but small businesses will share far more of the burden, the cost and the enforcement action. Food businesses will have to use an equation based on fat, sugar and salt content per hundred grams of their food, these can then be mitigated by healthy food on the plate. This might mean that businesses are unable to advertise, or worse, advertise illegally – if their food appears online and is HFSS. Businesses that sell processed food will be able to work out their HFSS score per product, but this is likely to be far harder for those changing their menu’s or working with fresh produce, especially as fat contents on ground meat for example – can change per delivery. We fear that a well-meaning and generally well targeted piece of legislation will create a significantly greater burden on small and micro food businesses than on the real target of the legislation, the businesses with huge marketing budgets that are targeted at young people, who predominantly sell HFSS foods.
While this will impact takeaways such as the great British chippy or Balti house, it is arguably the emerging indie artisan scene in restaurants and eateries and mobile caterers that have the most to lose if posting images online is banned, severely impacting their ability to bring in customers and win function contracts.
We ask all NCASS members to consider this ban very carefully, to complete the survey to give us the direction we need to represent your needs. We believe that this legislation, while well intentioned and arguably necessary considering the health crisis, will punish those who are not directly causing the problem, like street food businesses, patisseries and dessert specialists, while allowing established fast food brands to continue to build their brands online.