Vending fights back

The debate on obesity amongst the population and the importance of a balanced diet continues to rumble as healthy eating remains high on the government’s agenda. As it does so, the humble vending machine is being singled out and unfairly attacked.
The fact is that the nation has been eating snacks and confectionery for many years without issue and rather than being the cause, the vending machine offers a solution. Vending machines provide choice and the items on sale reflect consumer tastes and demand, including fresh fruit, low fat and low sugar products as well as a range of drinks to rival the high street coffee shops.
Vending is one sales channel and to put the debate into some context, the UK snack and confectionery market is worth £39bn of which £7.8bn is chocolate and snacks. Only 5 per cent of the snack intake goes through the vending channel, so to attack and try to ban the vending machine will do little to affect the health of the nation.
The Automatic Vending Association (AVA), the trade body representing the £1.65bn refreshment vending industry, is lobbying hard to ensure that the vending machine gets fair treatment and any legislation does not impose limited choice or financial penalties on the consumer. As it opens the dialogue with those who have chosen to attack vending, it is clear that there is no foundation for singling out vending and astonishingly there are no clear guidelines on what constitutes a healthy item.

Vending in hospitals
Last year, the Minister of Health for Wales, Edwina Hart, imposed restrictions on the products that could be sold through vending machines in Welsh Hospitals. These restrictions meant that hospital vending machines significantly reduced the range of products on sale to staff, visitors and patients. Interestingly the busiest times that the machines are used are at 8pm and 2am by hospital staff, who understand the importance of diet and who surely do not need any guidance from the Minister on what to eat.
In response to the restrictions, the AVA formed the Vending Choice Coalition (VCC), which is a group comprising of key food and beverage associations, major brand manufacturers and operator companies. Their goal is to ensure that vending has its say and consumers have freedom of choice to purchase a wide range of food and beverages through the vending channel in order to achieve a balanced diet. Various meetings have taken place and having written to Edwina Hart, with copies to the entire Welsh Assembly (all parties), there has been considerable support for the AVA, VCC and its objective.
The Minister for Health has undertaken a review of vending in Welsh hospitals and this has a number of far-reaching implications. As an example, sugar will not be allowed in vended tea and coffee; sweeteners must be used, all of which impacts on people’s right to choose. As the AVA and VCC continue to lobby for choice, it is worth noting that vending is the only channel subject to very strict nutritional controls and restrictions. Jonathan Hilder, CEO of the AVA, is championing the debate and he commented: “Vending must not be demonised and isolated from any other sales channel.”

Offering choice
The vending machine came under more fire recently by the British Heart Foundation, which has targeted the vending machine in its campaign to encourage healthy eating. The AVA is firm to point out that there is no evidence to support the view that vending causes obesity or an unhealthy lifestyle.
The BHF argued that obesity rates were soaring, however, recent studies by the National Heart Forum found evidence that the rate of childhood obesity may be starting to slow and the reported projections had been greatly exaggerated. Its figures suggest that by 2020 the proportion of boys aged 2-11 who will be overweight or obese will be 30 per cent – not the 42 per cent that was predicted. For girls the same age the revised prediction is now 27 per cent – down from 48 per cent.
Scotland’s largest teaching union has recently thrown its weight behind a campaign to amend the law to allow Aberdeen pupils to sell chocolate in their school. The Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) agrees that new healthy eating guidelines that have forced Dyce Academy to close its Fairtrade confectionary stall are “flawed”. Deputy head teacher Ruth Teehan added that any legislation that denies pupils the opportunity to make balanced decisions “negates” what educationalists are trying to achieve.
The pupils told MSPs that healthy lifestyles cannot be “forced” on youngsters, and a balance must be struck because they would only go to nearby shops to buy chocolate and sweets that are not available in school. Chocolate will be part of their lives forever and they need to be educated to be able to make informed choices. This view is supported by the FSA who in their publication (BITE) cited the view from youngster Toby: “Whilst carrots pasta and cheese were healthy you can eat chocolate too, provided it is part of a balanced diet.”
Jonathan Hilder, AVA CEO, pointed out: “When you impose restrictions on choice, all that happens is that the point of purchase moves to another place which often can’t be controlled.
“The vending machine is not the problem, we need to look at lifestyles and make some changes that will really impact on us.”
Last month Jonathan, AVA, and Gillian White, of the Vending Choice Coalition (VCC), met with Betty McBride of the BHF and her policy team, to discuss research conducted by the BHF into food and snack provision in leisure centres. Ms McBride and her team went to some lengths to explain that they were not attacking or in any way unhappy with the use of vending. They wanted to use the research to highlight the lack of product choice offered in vending machines where they are made available to young people.

What is healthy?
The AVA asked for advice on what was deemed healthy but the BHF would not commit itself to what they regard as “healthy” or indeed the level of choice they want to see in a machine. Jonathan commented: “If they are unable to quantify it, then it is difficult for the AVA and the VCC to help implement change. Also if change is made, the BHF would be unable to endorse it as they are unable to endorse any product or industry.”
There are currently three recognised labeling systems operating to educate consumers and encourage healthy eating: GDA, the traffic light system and calorific value. Jonathan believes that the calorie system is the simplest to follow, most people understand that if they consume more than the average recommended number of daily calories without burning them off then they will gain weight. He acknowledges that nutrition is a complex area but says we have to start somewhere.
Gill Fine, director of consumer choice and dietary health, supports this view: “The battle between GDA and traffic light labels has been deeply unhelpful.” She went on to explain her work with caterers, where 21 companies have put calories on menus, consumers have found this useful and she summed up by saying: “It’s excellent news for consumers.”
Keen to implement guidance to his members, Jonathan is looking to develop the recommended “healthier shelf”. AVA members are regularly introducing new products and Jonathan’s aim is that vending will maintain consumer choice and make that choice easy.
Whilst the dialogue with the Minister of Health and the BHF will continue it remains clear that that a lifestyle that combines regular physical activity with consumption of a wide range of food choices is the key to a healthy lifestyle. It is vital that consumers, whether they are in schools, hospitals or the workplace, are able to make that choice for themselves.
Vending machines reflect consumer demand and allow the widest range of products to be made available and can also be used to reinforce good lifestyle messages. Vending can be part of the solution to a healthy lifestyle and many operators offer healthy options. So contact your AVA operator to find out more about these options.

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