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Stakeholders advise on essential actions for the catering sector when implementing healthier eating strategies

In an expert workshop, thirty-eight participants from sixteen European countries and representing a wide variety of stakeholders, identified and assessed actions through which the catering sector could be engaged in strategies for healthier eating outside the home. The exercise, which was part of the EU project HECTOR (“Eating Out: Habits, Determinants and Recommendations for Consumers and the European Catering Sector”), revealed possible policy actions that may facilitate healthier eating out-of-home and thus potentially improve dietary intakes of Europeans, and has been analysed and published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

The causes of obesity are multifactorial and complex, and addressing them effectively requires efforts from many stakeholders. Since eating out is gaining importance in the diet of Europeans and is positively associated with weight gain, the catering sector has a key role in devising effective strategies for promoting healthy eating out.

An important part of HECTOR was to investigate strategies to enhance the healthiness of meals offered outside-of-home, as well as to increase consumer acceptance of and demand for healthier foods.

During a two-day workshop, stakeholders from private catering and catering-related enterprises, public officials, members of academia, consumer associations and international non-governmental organisations, evaluated the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the catering industry when implementing actions for healthier eating out. The participants were firstly briefed on the current knowledge regarding food services in Europe, the social and psychological aspects related to ‘eating out’ and consumer attitudes and behaviours when eating out. Following the presentations the participants were divided into working groups, with a balanced representation from the public and private sector, to focus on specific themes:

  1. To enhance the supply of health-promoting products by the catering sector
  2. To increase consumers’ awareness on optimal food choices
  3. To increase consumers’ demand for healthy foods when eating out

The exercise drew attention to the flexibility of the catering sector to change the foods offered and to adjust to changing markets and consumer demands as one of its main strengths. This is particularly relevant to small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The study also revealed the commercial opportunity resulting from involvement of the catering sector in healthy eating strategies. As healthy eating is a societal trend, an increased offer of healthier food options will likely improve the perceived credibility of the catering sector and build trust with consumers. In parallel, alignment of the sector objectives and actions with governmental initiatives will create opportunities for partnership with policy makers, for example in organising joint information awareness campaigns.

One point worth noting is that the catering sector consists of a heterogeneous set of businesses, with SMEs being responsible for providing an estimate of 49% up to 92% of informal eating-out occasions in the biggest European markets.

Amongst the weaknesses unveiled were the sector’s dependency on the supply of ingredients (seasonality, price and market structure), and the financial and human resource constraints small enterprises have especially when implementing strategies that require greater technical capacity. SMEs in particular, have a large number of unskilled workers, with language barriers, a high turnover of staff and limited training opportunities, all of which could act as barriers when implementing a healthy eating strategy. However, working towards healthier eating out could be an opportunity to educate, empower and motivate catering staff, as well as to trigger higher self-esteem among staff.

Indeed the main challenges identified relate to the high proportion of SMEs in the sector; particularly the additional costs that may result from business reorientation. Also, the drive for healthy improvements may lose momentum and pose a threat to profitability if the focus on healthy eating is not followed by real consumer demand. The high number of SMEs in the sector will also account for difficulties in implementing certain policy orientations.

The stakeholders generally agreed that strategies need to be implemented gradually and tailored to the context and type of caterer. They should acknowledge the heterogeneity in the European eating out landscape, and the need to incorporate cultural and locally relevant dimensions in catering. Government support would enhance the credibility of the messages.

With regards to consumer information, there is some reluctance to use ‘healthy option’ signposting. The problem is that the absence of such signposting may well be due to manufacturers not being able or willing to provide that kind of information, and entirely unrelated to the nutritional composition of the food. Caterers suggested choices could be promoted based on other qualities such as fresh and seasonal produce, and locally or sustainably sourced. The implementation of simultaneous consumer awareness campaigns, addressing both the food supply changes and healthy lifestyles, was considered to be key for the successful promotion of healthier eating out.

In conclusion the stakeholder analysis revealed potential ways on how to engage the catering sector in strategies for healthier eating out in Europe.

For further information, see
Lachat C, Naska A, Trichopoulou A, Engeset D, Fairgrieve A, Marques HA, Kolsteren P. (2011). Essential actions for caterers to promote healthy eating out among European consumers: results from a participatory stakeholder analysis in the HECTOR project. Public Health Nutrition 14(2):193-202, doi:10.1017/S1368980010002387

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