Currently the European Union controls food legislation for all member states, meaning the UK Department of Health does not have the power to force businesses to print calorie information on their menus.
However, despite a lack of evidence that diners are actively looking to change their eating habits, the British Hospitality Association believes such legislation may be passed by 2013.
Speaking at the latest R200 conference for the UK’s largest restaurant and pub groups, BHA chief executive Ufi Ibrahim said the introduction of a mandatory calorie labelling code is just ‘a matter of time’.
“With pressure coming in from the EU the question is not if it’s going to happen but when and how it will be introduced.
“The EU is very active and discussions have been going on for a while, but now there is more political support particularly around providing allergen information on menus. Expectations are that this is going to go through soon.
“Operators need to become aware and begin to start thinking about this in terms of how your business works.”
No ‘substantial’ evidence
However she added that there had been no ‘substantial evidence’ that calorie labelling directly impacts diners’ choices when eating out.
“In 2008 New York State took the lead and introduced calories on menus for all restaurant chains operating with more than 15 restaurants in a group.
“But as far as we can tell from NY research there is only sketchy evidence that by providing customers with information on menus they do actually change their decisions about what they consume.
“Where is the evidence that customers really are willing to change their habits? It hasn’t come out of NY, it hasn’t come out of any other evidence. The early adopters’ trial here in the UK didn’t provide that evidence either.
“It basically seems that when customers go to restaurants they sit down and they want to have that chocolate fondant - they have already decided to do so - and it really doesn’t matter if you tell them the calorie content. That for them is a treat, it’s a special occasion. They don’t want to be taught that they shouldn’t be eating it once they’ve decided to go there and consume it.”
Ibrahim added that she believed the Government was not concerned with whether the population wanted calorie labelling, as it felt it has a responsibility to influence consumers into making healthy lifestyle choices.
“The Government feels they have a responsibility to nudge society into asking for the information - it’s about pushing society to be more in tune with having information on demand and having the ability to make decisions with that information.
“We are hoping that the fact that we have evidence that it hasn’t made a difference and therefore something else will be thought through will actually help. But at the moment it seems government are not necessarily concerned with that fact that consumers aren’t asking for this information yet because they think they can help to influence that and make it happen.”
So far 28 hospitality companies, encompassing 4,000 high street outlets, have signed up to the Department of Health’s Responsibility Deal to commit to providing calorie information on food and non-alcoholic drinks on their menus, amongst other measures, from 1 September this year.