Food promotion controls to protect kids ‘are flawed’

Tougher controls are needed on the advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt to children, argues Which?

Pressure is mounting for the next UK government to introduce much tougher controls on the promotion and advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt to children.

Research has shown that people are “very supportive” of reductions in fat, sugar and salt in foods, Sue Davies, strategic policy adviser for consumer group Which?, told a recent seminar on sugar reduction policy, organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum in London.

“We need to build on the [government’s] childhood obesity plan to make sure work around reducing fat, sugar and salt levels continues; making sure there are regular reviews and further action if the targets aren’t being achieved. Promotions is one of those areas where we think there needs to be a lot more focus.”

While rules on promoting “unhealthy food” to children are being tightened – specifically around broadcasting restrictions and the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) review of the non-broadcast code – which comes into force on July 1, there were “still some gaps”, claimed Davies.

Use of cartoon characters

“There still are some outstanding issues and that reflects the flaws in the broadcast criteria,” said Davies. She referred specifically to the use of cartoon characters, which are used by some food brands – for example, the monkey used on Kellogg’s Coco Pops – and are targeted at children under 12.

Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, agreed. “The rules on junk food marketing to children do not go far enough,” he said.

“What we need is a much clearer definition of what is child-targeted advertising … it doesn’t cover the packaging, and that is what we would like to see. And it also doesn’t cover these films and TV programme tie-ins.”

Davies remarked that price remained a barrier to people making heathier food choices. This was often linked to promotions, she added.

“People were concerned that when they see promotions in supermarkets they are predominantly on less healthy foods rather than on the healthy foods,” she said.

‘People were concerned’

She reported on the results of Which? research, conducted in conjunction with comparison website mySupermarket.co.uk, which looked at offers between April and June 2016, from Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury, Tesco and Waitrose.

There were more than 77,000 promotions during this period, of which 53% were for less healthy products, said Davies. “But when you looked at specific categories, there were bigger differences,” she added. “So, there were a lot more promotions on confectionery than fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Davies also suggested that Brexit provided an opportunity for the UK to have a “joined up [food and agriculture] policy”.

“We don’t have to have completely separate debates about agriculture, about industrial strategy; and then debates about obesity, and how we deal with food safety,” she said.

“We can bring those altogether under a single framework.”

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