‘Deep disquiet in the food and drink sector’: Industry unhappy at regulation to halve UK childhood obesity

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

UK promises action on obesity - but delivers consultation ©iStock
UK promises action on obesity - but delivers consultation ©iStock
The food and drink industry expresses concern over UK proposals for increased regulation aimed at reducing obesity rates, while health campaigners call for speedier action.

UK Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt has detailed new measures that the government hopes will enable it to halve the number of obese children in the country by 2030.

“The cost of obesity – both on individual lives and our NHS – is too great to ignore. Today we are taking steps to ensure that by 2030, children from all backgrounds have the help they need for a healthier, more active start in life,”​ Hunt said.

According to NHS figures, in 2016/17, one in five children in Year 6 and one in ten children in Reception were classified as obese.

Building on what the government called the ‘first chapter’ of its childhood obesity plan, launched two years ago, the proposals would see regulators ban displays of unhealthy foods at checkouts. The inclusion of foods that are high in sugar, salt or fat would be prohibited from promotions, such as buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) deals.

“It is near impossible to shield children from exposure to unhealthy foods. Parents are asking for help – we know that over three-quarters of parents find offers for sugary sweets and snacks at checkouts annoying. It’s our job to give power to parents to make healthier choices, and to make their life easier in doing so,”​ Hunt commented.

The Department of Health will also launch consultations on three key pieces of regulation: the display of calories on menu items in restaurants, a ban on the sale of energy drinks to children and tighter advertising restraints on foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat.

On marketing, the government said it is mulling restrictions that prevent children being “targeted”​ by unhealthy products, arguing that this will “incentivise​” companies to reformulate their products. New regulations could include extending the current advertising watershed and “limiting the number​” of unhealthy products advertised during children’s programming up to 9pm.

At the same time, the government said it is backing initiatives to promote increased physical activity in primary schools, such Living Street’s Walk to School project and the Department for Transport’s Bikeability cycling training programme. The planning regime will be used to tackle the food environment, with an emphasis placed on food-to-go outlets. 

Food industry concerned on advertising

Responding to the announcement, the UK’s Food and Drink Federation – which represents the interests of the food and drink sector – said that advertising is an important tool for industry to communicate with consumers.

In particular, FDF corporate affairs director Tom Rycroft argued that advertising restrictions could actually inhibit reformulation efforts by preventing food and beverage makers from signalling healthier variants.

“There will be deep disquiet in the food and drink manufacturing sector today,”​ Rycroft commented. “Advertising and promotions underpin the healthy, vibrant and innovative market for food and drink that UK shoppers love. If government restricts our ability to advertise and promote new healthier options to shoppers, it could risk the success of the reformulation programme. Any further restrictions will have to pass stern tests around targeting and effectiveness.”

He stressed that FDF’s members have engaged with the government’s “comprehensive”​ programme to reformulate food and drink, included in its first childhood obesity plan. 

The FDF has previously criticised the Public Health England's sugar reduction targets. In 2016, as part of the first installment of the Obesity Strategy, PHE challenged food makers to cut sugar by 20% by 2020, with the aim of a 5% reduction in the first year. Across key categories, the sector was only able to deliver a 2% reduction in the first year, prompting the FDF to suggest that the targets were too "ambitious"​. 

Nevertheless, Rycroft welcomed the government’s commitment to consult with industry and other stakeholders as it irons out the details. “The commitment to full consultation on these measures is welcome.”

Retailers want level playing field

While the food sector association expressed worries over the prospect of increased regulation, UK retailers were keen to see a level playing field in areas such as price promotions and store layout.

A spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium told FoodNavigator that it was important decisions were evidence-based and that “more progressive”​ retailers were not penalised for making voluntary changes.

“Major retailers already have policies on ensuring a balance in promotion to deliver healthy choice and value to customers. We note the proposals to prevent the marketing of certain items on gondola ends or in other strategic areas throughout stores. Any intervention … will need to be mandatory to ensure consumers see a consistent approach and more progressive retailers are not penalised commercially.”

On price promotions, the BRC was more guarded: “We believe any intervention needs to be based on clear evidence it will reduce childhood obesity and carefully targeted to ensure that prices are not affected across the board.”

The organisation, which represents UK retailers, added that for obesity measures to be effective they will require the cooperation of the whole industry. “Tackling the causes of childhood obesity needs a comprehensive approach with all food companies as well as major retailers playing a full role.”

‘Consulting won’t save lives’

Health campaigners, meanwhile, were scathing about the slow rate of progress and the lack of concrete action included in the policy update.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, stressed that the government’s plan “clearly lacks firm commitment”​ and “only promises consultations”​ by the end of the year. “Why has this not already been done given the original plan was published two years ago?”

Professor MacGregor argued that a “fully joined up”​ campaign is needed, including uniform traffic light labelling, mandatory sugar and calorie reformulation, a tax on confectionery and unhealthy foods that could be reformulated, and a total advertising ban across “all platforms”​ including TB, digital and print.

“Simply consulting about the nation’s biggest public health crisis is not going to save lives,”​ Professor MacGregor stressed.

Sustain’s children’s food campaign coordinator, Barbara Crowther, was more upbeat: “If the Government’s Child Obesity Plan released two years ago was a disappointing starter, then Chapter Two promises a wholesome and effective menu of action, but still leaving room for a healthy next course.

“We fully support the government’s intentions on junk food promotions and marketing, but the consultations to come will be crucial. A commitment to consider is not a commitment to act, and children’s health needs decisive action.”

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