In a move sure to prick the ears of foods producers, Unilever France has established an exclusive deal with an insurance firm to give customers of the insurance firm rebates for consuming Unilever's Flora pro-activ cholesterol products.
Despite consumer groups criticising the pact for exploiting health concerns, the move is being backed by the French government's health agency. "Our aim is to get consumers to realise the importance of eating the right diet to reduce hyper-cholesterol," said a spokesperson for the insurance company, Maaf, France's sixth largest, with more than 800,000 customers.
Danone is negotiating a similar deal for its cholesterol-lowering products with another French insurer, AGF.
Unilever in the Netherlands, where pro-activ comes under the Becel umbrella, made a similar arrangement with a Dutch insurer, VGZ, earlier in 2005. A spokesperson for Unilever's Dutch operation said the company was pleased with the response to the initiative, which requires consumers to present receipts to the insurer to claim their rebate of up to 40E ($48).
The fact insurance companies are willing to offer discounts based on dietary selections demonstrates the value of functional foods in disease prevention, according to Peter Wennstrom, president of market research analyst HealthFocus Europe.
"This is very logical and follows the vision of prevention rather than cure," he said. "It is also financially logical since society cannot afford the burden of lifestyle and diet-related diseases if they pursue the medical/pharmaceutical/cure strategy where society doesn't interfere with people's lifestyles until they drop into the emergency ward. By then the treatment per patient is very costly."
Wennstrom predicted greater legitimacy for such schemes. "It is already getting more expensive for people with unhealthy lifestyles (smoking, overweight) to get life insurance. This model is slowly gaining ground, and governments will start to support prevention with subsidies instead of subsidising pharmaceuticals.
"Danone and Unilever have confidence in the strong science behind their products, which will help them gain entry into a system of subsidies," Wennstrom said. "This strategic vision helps explain why Danone has the highest R&D spending of all food companies in the world."
Dutch insurance firm VGZ estimated 120,000 of the 2.1 million people on its books used cholesterol-lowering medication at a cost of $42 million per year. More than 6,000 of its customers underwent heart surgery at a cost of $70 million.
British cholesterol-lowering options recently increased as UK supermarket chain Tesco launched a cholesterol-lowering range using Forbes MediTech's plant sterol ingredient, Reducol.