‘A missed opportunity’: UK food industry hits back as government anti-obesity plan unveiled

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Tijana87
Image: Getty/Tijana87

Related tags: Obesity, Junk food, Junk food marketing, HFSS

The government’s new obesity strategy for England will raise prices, reduce consumer choice, threaten jobs and stifle innovation. And all to save 17 calories a day, says the FDF.

The UK government will ban TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) before 9pm in the whole of the UK and end deals such as ‘buy one get one free’ on HFSS products in England. Shops will be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on food like fruit and vegetables.

The government’s new campaign to help people ‘lose weight, get active and eat better’ after the COVID-19 ‘wake-up call’ also requires calories to be displayed on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out – while alcoholic drinks could soon have to list hidden ‘liquid calories’.

The government added it will look to improve front-of-pack nutritional labelling and launch a consultation to gather views and evidence on its current ‘traffic light’ labelling system to learn more about how this is being used by consumers and industry, compared to international examples.

Doctors will be encouraged to prescribe exercise and more social activities to help people keep fit.

The government will not, however, be extending the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, launched in 2018, onto unhealthy foods. Neither will it be putting in place mandatory targets for reformulation: two measures public health campaigners were calling for.

The ‘fat man of Europe’

Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or obese – and 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese. Obesity-related illnesses costs the UK’s national health service, NHS, £6 billion a year.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, was traditionally a libertarian who opposed so-called ‘nanny state’ interventions from the government in order to combat obesity and its effects on public health. However, his own brush with death from COVID by all accounts convinced him to roll out the new £10 million anti-obesity campaign.

Johnson said: “Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves.”

Start-up innovation will be stifled

But the Food and Drink Federation called the strategy “a punishing blow”​ for UK food and drink manufacturers and a “terrible missed opportunity​”.

The UK's food and drink manufacturers and the half a million people we employ – so recently the heroes heralded by government for feeding the nation during the COVID crisis – will be reeling today from this punishing blow,”​ said Tim Rycroft, Chief Operating Officer at the FDF.

“As the economy struggles to recover, new restrictions on promoting and advertising everyday food and drink will increase the price of food, reduce consumer choice and threaten jobs across the UK.”

Rycroft said there was very limited evidence that these measures would effectively tackle obesity. “The UK Government's own figures suggested that proposed bans on advertising and promotions combined would only reduce children's average calorie consumption by 17 calories per day.”​ 

He estimated that a ban on price promotions would cost shoppers around £600 per family, per year. Manufacturers, meanwhile, would see little point in introducing lower-sugar or lower-calories variants of their products into a market in which it will not be possible to advertise or promote them to shoppers.

“Since 2006, industry has worked in partnership with government and hundreds of everyday products have been reformulated to make them healthier, in-line with government guidelines. Healthier choices will now fall foul of the government's illogical rules. Start-ups and challenger brands will find it much harder to get 'share of shelf' against established brands without promotions to raise their profile, leading to less choice for shoppers.”

'No reason' to think ad restrictions will combat obesity 

The Advertising Association, another representative body, called the ban on HFSS advertising a “totally disproportionate measure​” that would unfairly prevent food and drink businesses large and small up and down the country from being able to advertise and market their products.

We are bitterly disappointed by the announcement today by the Government that they are to press ahead with measures against advertising that are misguided, unfounded and will be totally ineffective in the fight against obesity,”​ said Sue Eustace, AA Director of Public Affairs.

“The Government’s very own research has shown that a 9pm watershed ban on HFSS advertising will reduce a child’s calorie intake by a miniscule 1.7 calories per day – the equivalent of half a Smartie.”

She added: “These proposed bans on HFSS advertising will not solve the structural inequalities linked to deprivation that cause higher rates of obesity among people, just as attention-grabbing new regulations will not undo decades of under-investment in targeted and community-based health initiatives. Advertising​ has a unique ability to be part of the solution to obesity by promoting healthy lifestyles, as the recent ‘Eat Them To Defeat Them’ TV campaign​ to encourage children to eat vegetables shows. It seems the Government has ignored its own research showing how ineffective these proposals would be.”

Regulator Ofcom, meanwhile, already has regulations in place banning the advertising of HFSS food and drink during children’s TV programming.

Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics, at the IEA think-tank, said that the amount of TV advertising for HFSS food seen by children has fallen by more than two-thirds in the last fifteen years. “If advertising was the problem, rates of childhood obesity should have declined,” ​he said. “They haven’t. There is no reason to expect further restrictions to make any difference.”

He further warned it was misleading to claim that the advertising bans would only affect ‘junk food’. “They would apply to any so-called HFSS food. This includes raisins, sultanas, soy sauce, mustard, honey, jam, yoghurts, tinned fruit, mayonnaise, butter, olive oil and many other products that no reasonable person would consider to be unhealthy.”

Ofcom will use the nutrient profiling model​ developed by the Food Standards Agency in 2004/8 to decide what constitutes HFSS food and drink in the new broadcasting restrictions.   

NGOs lament lack of reformulation targets

Public health campaigners who have long demanded interventionist steps from government to tackle obesity also complained the government’s latest drive was a missed opportunity.

Katharine Jenner, Campaign Director at Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, ​said: "We are delighted that the Government has finally recognised that these huge food and drink companies have not been acting in our best interests when they advertise and discount their heavily processed, high in fat, salt and sugar, food and drinks. This will be hard to stomach for many of them, but for the more responsible companies, this is an opportunity to build back better, making and promoting healthier options. 

“However, it’s a missed opportunity that mandatory targets for reformulation i.e. removing unnecessary calories, sugar and salt from products have been excluded from Boris’s announcement along with their proper enforcement. Furthermore, it's absurd that the highly successful soft drinks levy has not been extended to other unhealthy sugar foods and drinks."

Professor Judith Buttriss, Director General, British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), added: “Support for people who want to lose weight and improve their health, from the new NHS England and PHE initiatives, is a step in the right direction. However, given the scale of the problem, it is likely that further action across many different areas will be needed in order to have a significant impact on obesity levels.

"The progressive rise in obesity we have seen in recent decades is related to major changes in our environment and the way we live, where energy dense foods are readily available and it’s very easy to be inactive. Therefore, tackling obesity requires many changes to make it easier for us to act on our intentions to improve our health, to eat healthily and be active, and this is not something that is quick or easy to fix.”

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