The Government has published extensive proposals designed to improve the health of the nation and fight obesity. Advertisers are in the firing line and we report on what the industry has to do by 2007 or else at
The UK Government Department of Health
The Government published its long awaited "Choosing Health" white paper. This follows hard on the heels of an Ofcom report focussing on TV ads supposedly promoting unhealthy food choices to children.
The Ofcom study recommended strongly that bans during primetime children's television were not the way forward. The white paper proposals, however, take a different tack.
In this report, we will focus on the parts of the white paper that deal with the labelling, packaging and advertising of food.
The white paper observes that a lot of information is provided on packaged and processed foods, but comments that lists expressed in terms that few of us can understand are not enough. What consumers need to know is where a particular food fits in a healthy balanced diet so that we can make informed choices.
In light of this, the Government resolves to "press vigorously" for progress before and during the UK Presidency of the European Union in 2005 (starting July) to simplify nutrition labelling and make it mandatory on packaged foods. With that in mind, the Government aims, by mid 2005, to have introduced a system that can be used as a standard basis for "signposting" foods. This will build on the nutrient criteria for the existing "Five a day" logo. The criteria will be used also to identify which foods can be promoted to children and the Government-licensed "Five a day" logo would be extended to processed foods and to foods targeted at children.
The aim of "signposting" foods is to make it easier for people to see at a glance how individual foods contribute to a healthy, balanced diet. A "traffic light" approach has been mooted but the form the "signposts" will eventually take is still not finalised. The Government resolves to work with the food industry to develop this further on the completion of consumer research currently being conducted by the Food Standards Agency.
The goal is for there to be by 2006 a clear, straight-forward coding system that is in common use so that busy people can understand at a glance which foods can make a positive contribution to a healthy diet and which are recommended to be eaten only in moderation or sparingly.
Positive health information and education
On the theme of "developing partnerships within industry to promote health", the paper says ominously that the Government intends to discuss with the food industry how they might "contribute to funding" national campaigns and other national initiatives to promote positive health information and education. A range of proposals is already apparently under discussion in order to increase opportunities for people to make healthy choices in what they eat. These are aimed at:-
· increasing the availability of healthier food, including reducing the levels of salt, added sugars and fat in prepared and processed food and drink and increasing access to fruit and vegetables;
· reversing the trend towards bigger portion sizes; and
· adopting consistent and clear standards for information on food including signposting.
Protecting children and young people
The paper records that people feel that it is wrong for children to be bombarded with sophisticated marketing that might confuse them and reduce their ability to make healthy choices before they have been able to develop the skills and experience to negotiate their way through the array of choices on offer. In the responses to its "Choosing health?" consultation there was apparently "overwhelming support" for some restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children.
Reference is then made to the recent Ofcom report on TV advertising of food to children and to its conclusion that a total ban on TV advertising of food and drinks to children would be neither proportionate nor in isolation effective.
The Ofcom report's conclusion here was that there was a need to look at all food advertising and promotion that was aimed at children, not just that on TV. For its part the Government, clearly swayed by responses to the consultation process, considers that there is a "strong case for action" to restrict further the advertising and promotion to children of those foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar. The action taken needed to be comprehensive and taken in relation to all forms of advertising and promotion including broadcast, non-broadcast, sponsorship and brand sharing, point of sale advertising including vending in schools and labels, wrappers and packaging.
The paper says that there is a range of ways in which regulations governing food and drink advertising and promoting can be enhanced and strengthened. These might cover:
· when, where and how frequently certain advertisements and promotions appear – for example one option would be to consider "different restrictions" during children's television (pre-6pm), during peak times (6pm – 9pm) and after the 9pm watershed;
· the use of cartoon characters, role models, celebrities and glamorisation of foods that children should only eat seldom or in moderation as part of a balanced diet;
· the inclusion of clear nutritional information, perhaps based on a signposting system, and/or "balancing messages" in advertisements to counteract the influence of high fat, salt and sugar food advertisements.
The government says it is "keen to see real progress" in this area and on television ads it says it will work with the broadcasting and advertising sectors on ways to help drive down levels of childhood obesity.
More Ofcom consultation urged
Cutting across the recent Ofcom report, the Government says that it will look to Ofcom to consult on proposals to tighten the rules on broadcast advertising, sponsorship and promotion of food and drink and securing their effective implementation by broadcasters. The target will be to ensure that children are "properly protected" from encouragement to eat too many high fat salt and sugar foods, both during children's programmes and at other times when large numbers of children are watching. There should also be opportunities for broadcasters and advertisers to participate in healthy living promotions.
Other areas for action
Outside television, the Government notes that there are many other areas of advertising spend and it resolves to work with industry, advertisers, consumer groups and other stakeholders to encourage new measures to strengthen existing voluntary codes in non-broadcast areas including:
· setting up a new "Food and drink advertising and promotion forum" to review, supplement, strengthen and bring together existing provisions;
· contributing funding to the development of new health initiatives, including positive health campaigns.
Early 2007 deadline
The Government then gets tough and says that it is committed to ensuring that measures to protect children's health are rigorously implemented and soundly based on evidence of impact.
It will therefore monitor the success of these measures in relation to the balance of food and drink advertising and promotion to children and children's food preferences to assess their impact.
It then intones threateningly that if, by early 2007, these steps have failed to produce change in the nature and balance of food promotion, the Government will take action through existing powers or new legislation to "implement a clearly defined framework for regulating the promotion of food to children".
Why this matters:
The Advertising Association has itself admitted that "the status quo is not an option" when it comes to food advertising, and it is clear that despite Ofcom's lack of enthusiasm for bans of any kind of TV food advertising to children, the Government has got a different message from public responses to the consultation process.
It is therefore making it quite clear to Ofcom that it is expecting early action to introduce much tighter controls on food advertising to children on TV than the Ofcom report of summer 2004 might indicate. It also seems to be expecting industry to put its hand in its pocket to help promote healthy eating and perhaps we will see a "Portman Group" (the alcohol industry-funded body that operates its own code covering inter alia packaging and branding of alcoholic drinks) equivalent for the food industry before not too long.
As regards labelling, the much vaunted "traffic light" scheme is clearly only part of the overall picture that the Government is looking at and we can expect more EU driven controls in this area within the next 18 months which might cover areas such as portion sizes as well.