Stores are attacked for cutting prices of fatty foods

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The Independent Online

Supermarkets are undermining healthy eating by bombarding shoppers with cut-price offers for unhealthy food during the credit crunch, according to a report into the £90bn grocery market.

The National Consumer Council found twice as many promotions for fatty and sugary foods as there were two years ago.

Researchers checked stores operated by eight major grocers: Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, the Co-op, Somerfield, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

Promotions for products high in sugar and fat outnumbered those for fresh produce by four to one.

A total of 54 per cent of cut-price deals were for fatty and sugary foods, despite advice that these foods should make up 7 per cent of people's diets – and despite promises by supermarkets that they would smarten up their act.

Only 12 per cent of cut-price offers were for fruit and vegetables, when they should make up one-third of food consumed. Overall, there were 4,300 promotions, a rise of 17 per cent compared with the last NCC survey in 2006.

"The volume of in-house promotions for fatty and sugary foods the supermarkets are all offering is staggering," said Lucy Yates, the report's author. "We expected to see evidence of big improvements since our last investigation, but we've been sadly disappointed.

"Despite their claims, the supermarkets all still have a long way to go to help customers choose and enjoy a healthier diet."

The British Retail Consortium, which represents the supermarkets, dismissed the report as "misleading" because the checks had been done in March, not July as in 2006.

The BRC's food director Andrew Opie said retailers were offering huge numbers of discounts and promotions retailers to "cash-strapped customers".

"Customers will have seen for themselves the current high-profile supermarket price war centred on fruit and vegetables," he said. "Of course 'treat' foods are on offer at Easter. What matters is the balance of promotions across the year."

But in the report, Cut-price, what cost?, the NCC excluded all promotions for Easter eggs or Easter cakes to ensure Easter did not skew its figures. To check the overall health performance of supermarkets, it visited the eight chains in Sheffield, where they each have a store.

Researchers checked salt content of own-brand foods, front-of-pack labelling, promotions, and information on healthy eating. Overall, the NCC said Sainsbury's was the best for health, followed by the Co-op, Waitrose and M&S. Asda and Tesco were joint fifth, trailed by Somerfield and Morrisons. On promotions, Morrisons had the most for sugary and fatty food, 63 per cent. The Co-op had the fewest, but they still made up 41 per cent of the total.

Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket, had the fewest money-off deals for fruit and vegetables – representing just 8 per cent of its overall promotions.

Ms Yates said the findings were alarming in a tighter economic climate, when shoppers would be concerned about their budgets. "With food prices going up, consumers are more than ever looking to benefit from the money-saving opportunities that multi-buys present," she wrote. "This is particularly important for lower-income consumers who are likely to be feeling the pinch more than most.

"However, we found that the dominance of fatty and sugary foods on promotion, coupled with a very high representation of multi-buys as a promotional technique, makes it more attractive for consumers to choose greater quantities of those foods that contribute to an unhealthy diet."

The NCC urged retailers to run fewer multi-buy promotions on fatty and sugary foods and to remove unhealthy snacks and sweets from checkouts – a policy for which it criticised Marks & Spencer and Morrisons.

Quicker reductions should be made to salt, fat, saturated fat and sugar in own-brand products. Finally, the NCC demanded, all stores should roll out traffic light labelling to help shoppers improve the balance of their diets.

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of the food and farming group Sustain, said that the report's findings were "depressing" but not surprising.

The health league

*1st – Sainsbury's

Sales: £13.7bn

Market share: 15.8%

Health claim: "We support the recommendation that everyone should have five portions of fruit or veg a day."

Percentage of all promotions that are for fruit and veg: 15%

Promotions that are for fatty and sugary food: 52%

NCC verdict: "First place – second report in a row. Progress on salt."

*2nd – Co-op

Sales: £3.6bn

Market share: 4.2%

Health claim: "We commit to ensure an increasing proportion of healthy offerings [and] our own-brand products have honest labelling."

Promotions fruit and veg: 16%

Promotions fatty and sugary food: 41%

NCC verdict: "Improvements on salt, and snacks at checkout."

*3rd – Waitrose

Sales: £3.2bn

Market share: 3.8%

Health claim: "Our objectives are to provide ... healthier food choices, clearly label ... and educate."

Promotions fruit and veg: 13%

Promotions fatty and sugary food: 57%

NCC verdict: "Some improvements in salt and labelling. Disappointing drop in promotions score."

*4th – Marks & Spencer

Sales: £4.2bn

Market share:4.3%

Health claim: "We now have over 1,000 foods labelled with the eat well sunflower across our range of foods, which makes shopping for a healthy diet easier."

Promotions fruit and veg: 25%

Promotions fatty and sugary food: 48%

NCC verdict: "Must do more to cut sweets from the checkouts."

*Joint 5th – Asda

Sales: £14.7bn

Market share: 17%

Health claim: "We take our responsibility as one of the UK's largest food retailers very seriously, which is why we're promoting clearer labelling."

Promotions fruit and veg: 15%

Promotions fatty and sugary food: 52%

NCC verdict: "Scored poorly for promotions and checkout sweets."

*Joint 5th – Tesco

Sales: £27bn

Market share: 31.6%

Health claim: "We are constantly trying to find innovative ways to make it easier for customers to live healthier lives, whatever their income or attitudes."

Promotions fruit and veg:8%

Promotions fatty and sugary food: 56%

NCC verdict: "Lowest score in nutrition indicator. Disappointing."

*7th – Somerfield

Sales: £3.24bn

Market share:: 3.7%

Health claim: "Somerfield works ... to educate young people about the benefits of healthy eating."

Promotions fruit and veg: 13%

Promotions fatty and sugary food: 52%

NCC verdict: "Need to improve."

*8th – Morrisons

Sales: £9.6bn

Market share: 11.1%

Health claim: "Morrisons is committed to a range of healthy foods with clear labelling."

Promotions fruit and veg: 10%

Promotions fatty and sugary food: 63%

NCC verdict: "Very poor. Last for the fourth report in a row."