Is There a Solution to the UK “Nutrition Crisis”?

The recession in the UK is exacerbating a problem that has always existed, with low-income socioeconomic groups’ already low intakes of fruit and vegetables tumbling even further. In a combined effort, the government and industry players are trying their best to reverse this trend but it may well be a struggle that is lost from the outset. The consumers most in need of improving their diets are least motivated to do so, while the types of offerings that could possibly entice them remain unaffordable.

Poor households cut down on fruit and vegetables

On 15 November 2012, the UK Department of Health (DH) reported that a number of major food industry players had pledged to increase their offering of fruit and vegetables while also making these products more accessible. These food industry players included the country’s leading supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. The pledge comes as part of the Public Health Responsibility Deal launched in March 2011. This is a partnership between the UK government and industry players that aims to tackle the UK’s burgeoning obesity crisis.

Three days after the DH announcement, UK newspaper The Guardian published an article based on research carried out in collaboration with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). This highlighted the impact of falling household incomes and unemployment on nutritional intakes.

Some of the conclusions drawn were quite startling. Households with an income of less than £25,000 (US$40,000) per annum had cut back their food spending by 11% since 2007, in the face of rising food prices. According to official UK government statistics published by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), fruit prices in the UK rose by 34% between 2007 and 2012, vegetable prices by 22% and processed food prices by 36%.

Over this period, according to researchers, the consumption of fruit and vegetables dropped across all UK households other than those in the highest-income brackets, with the poorest households registering the largest drop in consumption. This research estimates that the number of people who manage to achieve the recommended five-a-day portion target for fruit and vegetables dropped by 900,000 between May 2010 and May 2012.

Fruit hardest hit

Euromonitor International fresh food data confirms the trend of falling fruit and vegetable intakes in the UK. Fruit was hardest hit. Between 2006-2011, fresh fruit volumes declined by 5%. Canned/preserved fruit, which is cheaper and potentially less prone to wastage, failed to make up for the shortfall as retail volumes declined by 10% over 2007-2012.

Several types of fruit saw steady moderate annual sales increases prior to the onset of the recession but started to decline from 2009 onwards, including cherries, bananas, grapes, lemon and limes, pineapple, pears/quinces and plums/sloes. Apples, one of the most economically-priced types of fresh fruit as well as one of the least perishable, meanwhile declined is sales by 8% over the review period.

Fresh vegetables delivered a fairly stagnant performance, increasing by a CAGR of less than 1% over 2006-2011. Onions showed barely any positive growth at all, which fits in with The Guardian and JRF’s supposition that home cooking is declining in the UK despite the recession. In contrast, recession led to an increase in the domestic preparation of meals in many other countries.

Supermarkets target those who consume little fruit and vegetables

To help stem this worrisome trend, 16 companies signed up to a pledge to promote fruit and vegetable consumption in the UK. These players were drawn from across manufacturing, retail and consumer foodservice and included Mars, Subway, Aldi and the British Frozen Food Federation.

The Co-operative Group, the UK’s fifth-largest grocery retailer in terms of value share, stated that it would run promotions specifically aimed at targeting consumers who currently
buy few fresh fruits or vegetables. The retailer is thus set to introduce a voucher scheme for fresh, frozen and canned fruit and veg. The approach has already been trialled and the company reported that it had resulted in a “20% higher redemption rate than for any other, more typical money-off coupon campaign.”

Sainsbury, the UK’s third ranking grocer, also recognises that food shoppers on the tightest budgets are the most likely to eschew fresh produce. This retailer’s strategy therefore
includes offering a minimum of 40% of its fruit and vegetables at discounted prices, introducing a range of “ugly” produce to bring down prices and distribute recipe cards to promote home cooking.

Affordable does not equal desirable

It remains to be seen whether this industry commitment can do anything to reverse declining fruit and vegetable consumption in lower-income groups, who have long had by far the lowest intake of fresh produce. Grocery retailers may be able to tackle the issue of affordability for a proportion of their offerings but boosting consumer purchasing motivation is a much more challenging and complex issue.

Aspiration and convenience factors play a notable role here. This is illustrated by the fact that fresh cranberries/blueberries delivered a remarkable 241% volume growth over the
review period. Meanwhile retail volumes of chilled fresh cut fruits rose by 28% over 2007-2012, representing a 40% value increase. Chilled prepared salad volumes rose by 16% with 26% value growth. These are all premium-priced choices, predominantly consumed by shoppers in the higher-income groups, who are prepared to pay for options that are healthy, attractive and convenient.

Lower-income consumers may well hanker after pop-into-your-mouth blueberries, fresh cut pineapple chunks and Mediterranean salads but retailers cannot be expected to offer these options at the same price as a net of onions. Tinned sweet corn, bags of cheap apples and gnarly carrots, no matter how nutritious, are far less appealing.

As the old adage goes, you may be able to lead the horse to water but you cannot make it drink. In addition, it does not help if there are bottles of champagne in view but unaffordable.