Anthony Hilton: Britvic profit slump puts City on alert

A couple of years ago I met the chairman of O2 Sir David Arculus, by chance, as he was on his way to address a lunchtime meeting of leading food manufacturers. The industry, he said, had ‘issues’ and the message he was about to deliver to them was uncomfortable.

Arculus believed public concerns over the nutritional value of food were growing and that obesity would become a critical problem. He said the food industry was likely to get the blame, in much the same way as the drinks industry has been implicated over binge drinking. Food firms, Arculus contended, needed to brace themselves.

What is interesting is that at the time, not many people were thinking like this. The newspapers would run occasional stories about food scares, but not about more general problems of food quality. Even if the public wanted a change in food standards, their arguments were not yet being articulated. And there was no sign of concern from the investment community.

In hindsight, Arculus offered food manufacturers a highly valuable service in his early warning of problems to come. He gave them time to take preventative action and get their PR position worked out.

One might ask how that time has been used. Obesity is now a major health concern, on the political as well as the public agenda. In February, Cadbury and Mars introduced health warnings on some chocolate bars, and last week soft drinks company Britvic announced a dramatic fall in profits because customers were turning away from sweetened fizzy drinks.

This gave the City a shock, summed up by Craig Mackenzie of Insight Investment Management, part of the HBOS group, who said he thought this marked the beginning of a sea change in investment thinking. Hitherto, he argued, fund managers had thought health issues would have only a marginal impact in the markets. Post-Britvic they have seen just how profoundly the private sector can be influenced by public opinion.

The food industry only has itself to blame. Had it done a proper PR job the City would not have been caught off guard. It may now find a cure more difficult than prevention.

anthony.hilton@haynet.com

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