Food and drink promos ‘undermining’ childhood obesity efforts, say MPs

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

The BRC said that evidence showed more retailers were moving towards low prices and that multi-buys were diminishing because that's what consumers wanted. 2020.©Kaisorn
The BRC said that evidence showed more retailers were moving towards low prices and that multi-buys were diminishing because that's what consumers wanted. 2020.©Kaisorn

Related tags: Childhood obesity, Nutrition

Highly discounted food items and the ‘buy one get one free’ price promotions are undermining the efforts made in tackling childhood obesity, according to the UK Commons Select Committee. 

The group of MPs have urged the Government to intervene with robust action to reduce the number of cut-price and multi-buy offers that supermarkets introduce to predominantly unhealthy food.

“Measures should be taken to reduce and rebalance the number and type of promotions in all retail outlets,”​ the report stated.

“In our view this should not be limited to products which are high in sugar, but also those high in salt and fat.

“Voluntary controls are unlikely to work in this area and the Government should introduce mandatory controls​.

Evidence from the food industry has pointed to the need for ‘a level playing field,’ after industry representatives detailed plans set out by the Government risk being undermined unless regulation was put in place.

The fear was retailers who acted responsibly on discounting and promotions were being put at a competitive disadvantage to those who do not.

Industry efforts

multipack coke cocoa cola, Droits d'auteur mattjeacock
Multibuy offers are popular with such foods as canned soft drinks and packets of crisps. ©mattjeacock

Driven by customer feedback and competition, retailers such as Aldi and Lidl, have moved away from ‘multibuy’ deals, which encourage people to increase consumption, and towards competing on a single price.

In February last year, similar steps were taken by Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which began to phase out such deals.

Evidence of an improvement in retailers’ price promoting practices were provided by Public Health England, which said that the proportion of food and drink sold on promotion had dropped from 40% to 37%.

Andrea Martinez-Inchausti from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) added that figures from the end of 2016 placed it closer to 27%.

“Retailers’ commitment to promote healthier products was obvious over Christmas when there was a price war over vegetables to be used in the Christmas dinner,”​ she added.

“It was one of the first times when there was a real price war over carrots. That was well received by customers. All our members are looking at different ways of positively promoting and providing information on healthier products to attract customers.”

‘Vague statements’

The Health Committee also welcomed measures taken on taxing sugary drinks and distribution efforts directed towards improving children’s health. This included increasing access to school sports and to breakfast clubs.

The restrictions on the advertising of products high in fat, sugar and salt to the under-16s, were also recognised by the committee.

However, they were frustrated that several key areas for action such as introducing a cap on portion sizes were omitted as part of the final obesity strategy.

"We are extremely disappointed that the Government has rejected a number of our recommendations,” s​aid Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chair of the Health Committee.

“Vague statements about seeing how the current plan turns out are inadequate to the seriousness and urgency of this major public health challenge.

“These omissions mean that the current plan misses important opportunities to tackle childhood obesity.

Tim Rycroft, corporate affairs director at the Food and Drink Federation, pointed out that responsible manufacturers were focussing efforts on reformulation and portion reduction.

“The Government has challenged the entire food industry to help people get fewer calories from sugars by adapting recipes, reducing portions and encouraging people to switch to low sugar options. This robust and transparent process, expected to launch soon, will involve the whole food industry. 

“This ambitious programme presents a major challenge for industry, as will the work on calories to follow. Manufacturers, for their part, are up for this challenge, focussing resources on helping to deliver this key part of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan.

“The most recent Ofcom review found current restrictions on TV advertising, comprehensively adhered to and enforced, to be appropriate and sufficient.”

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