Concerns among some campaigners over Dolmio owners strategy

Concerns among some campaigners over Dolmio owner's strategy

Given the tone of subsequent criticism from campaigners, perhaps Mars Inc calling its new five-year product reformulation and healthy-eating strategy, an "ambition" was not the wisest choice of words.

More often than not, the difference between a "strategy", a "vision" or just the plain old, common or garden "plan" is down to thesaurus roulette. It is surely by its actual intentions – and more importantly its success in achieving them – that the company will rightly be judged. However, Mars' initiative, in which the company aims to address a number of key issues around diet and health, always ran the risk of being branded as not ambitious enough by campaigners.

The strategy covers five areas: improving nutritional content; providing consumers with more nutrition information to help them make more balanced choices; inspiring consumers to cook and eat healthy meals with friends and family; exploring new formats and opportunities to offer products in more places at affordable prices; and helping Mars' staff improve their diets through nutrition education, cooking facilities and healthier food options.

The move that has gained most media attention is Mars' intention to differentiate, both on-pack and through online channels, between products for "everyday" and "occasional" consumption, defined as once per week.

Campaigners have suggested the new strategy is designed to show policymakers that concerns about obesity and diet-related ill health can be addressed by the private sector without the need for further regulation governing areas like labelling or promotion. For example, in the UK, Mars' largest market for cooking sauces, companies have been awaiting the Government's child obesity strategy. The strategy, now postponed until the late summer at the earliest, could contain measures relating to labelling, promotion or reformulation. 

However, responding to just-food, Mars said the strategy "goes much further than our reformulation objectives and labelling", although these were "key elements", and was "inspired by our desire to help our consumers live healthier lives".

Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign in the UK, says the Mars initiative suffers from the "usual weaknesses" of voluntary action, with "few quantifiable targets". Clark says there is insufficient connection with Public Health England's new Eatwell Guidance and "no mention at all" of how the company might change its approach to marketing and promotions.

In particular, Clark is concerned the addition of the words "everyday" or "occasional" on-pack would confuse consumers and compromise the voluntary colour-coded nutritional labelling system which the government is trying to establish as an industry standard, and which Mars itself now uses. 

"It risks confusing consumers and turning the eye away from the simple details of the colour-coded [labelling]," Clark says. He adds the Children's Food Campaign is worried about a company "setting its own criteria" to define what constitutes a product that is healthy for everyday consumption and one that should only be eaten once a week.

This is a concern shared by French consumer advocacy group UFC-Que Choisir. France is one of the three largest markets for Mars' cooking sauces products, according to Euromonitor. "We can't let a private company define what's good and what's not, with no relation with official, independent scientists," says Olivier Andrault, food officer at UFC-Que Choisir.

Mars acknowledges it is using its own "food nutrition criteria" to determine which SKUs will be classified for everyday or occasional consumption but says these are based on recommendations made by "the World Health Organization and other leading global public health authorities". The company says it will be posting which products will fit into the Occasional and Everyday categories online, and expects new packs bearing the new labels to begin appearing during the coming year.

However, the fact that the company envisages that "only a small subset" – 5% of its products globally in fact – will eventually be left in the "occasional" bracket will worry health advocates. This either speaks to a monumental effort the company will be making on product reformulation or suggests the company's nutritional criteria will not be sufficiently exacting.

In any event, Andrault believes to have just the everyday and occasional classifications is not sufficient. "What we want to do is help consumers find their way in a very rich and complicated food offer and having just two categories is too simple," Andrault tells just-food. Two on-pack nutritional systems being trialled in France, the "Five C" system and another devised by Carrefour, have five and four categories respectively, Andrault explains, and both have been endorsed by the government's food safety agency.

Leaving aside the contentious issue of how Mars will determine which products should be determined as "everyday" and "occasional", the company clearly sees reformulating products and fitting them – in the company's estimation at any rate – as suitable for everyday consumption as a strong business driver.

Steve Spencer, director of Australian food consultancy Freshagenda, believes the introduction of "occasional" and "everyday" labelling is a point of difference between Mars' strategy and the "healthy-eating agendas" of other food companies.

Spencer notes that the benefits of introducing such labelling go beyond the positive impact product reformulation and better-for-you marketing could have on sales as concerns around dietary health mount, but also relate to corporate reputation.

He sees Mars' approach as "frank and honest" and one that could play well with Australian consumers. "Honesty and openness on an issue like this could well improve the trust in a brand, as it conveys a message 'we know you love this, but take it easy how often you use it'", Spencer says. "People might be unaware of a pasta sauce being a problem."

That France is one of Mars' three largest markets for cooking sauces after the UK and Australia is interesting to note and might surprise some. Although there is contradictory research on the subject, received wisdom would have it that home cooking is more a feature of French culture than in many other developed countries. However, in many developed markets, a decline in home cooking skills is thought to be playing a part in rising obesity as families become more dependent on processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar. In that context, the focus on home preparation in the Mars strategy is notable.

Whether or not persuading more families to share meals with prepared pasta sauces should represent the ultimate ambition in encouraging home cooking may be questioned by some. In the rather idealised picture of familiar dining painted by Fiona Dawson, global president for Mars' food, drinks and multisales businesses, in an article posted on LinkedIn, Dad would not be heard to exclaim nostalgically, "Ah, pasta sauce, just like Mama used to open".

Nevertheless, Mars should perhaps be commended for at least recognising this issue in its strategy. Processed food manufacturers are to say the least conflicted on this issue. Naturally, one can't expect Dawson to advocate all families prepare pasta sauces from scratch but to increase the home preparation element, which for example may allow for more fresh vegetables to be incorporated into diets, can only be positive.

This aspect of the strategy, and its focus on improving the diets of its staff, have been rather eclipsed by the more contentious inclusion of additional on-pack labelling. These additional facets underline the breadth of the Mars approach and the holistic view of dietary health issues the company has adopted.

"Joined up" thinking is considered vital in policy-making, particularly for instance the benefits of linking areas such as food, diet, health, public amenities and transport. If in part Mars is making the point to politicians that it is positively engaged, the scope of its five-year "ambition" may win plaudits, and help to offset concerns about how the company will be labelling its products.