Legislation on foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) has been at the cliff-face of the UK’s political relationship with food for over two decades.
Described by the Institute for Government as “chronic policy issue”, successive UK governments since 1992 have failed to meet targets around reducing obesity. Now falling against the backdrop of rising food prices and shortages on supermarket shelves, action on HFSS has been kicked into the long grass to avoid placing further burden on what food products are available to customers.
But sentiment around HFSS is changing and with calls for greater action going unanswered by the Government, we take a look at the controversial policy area and consider why brands think now is the right time to get vocal on HFSS.
Not to sugar-coat it.
According to NHS data, over 25 million adults in the UK are obese.
Accounting for 1 in every 4 adults and around 1 in every 5 children aged 10 to 11, obesity is a major risk factor for an individual’s health and quality of life, whilst high rates of obesity across a population can cost the economy through health-related economic inactivity and lower productivity.
These are the points often raised in the debate over introducing tighter restrictions on the sale of products high in fat, salt or sugar, or HFSS. And they’re strong ones. The UK is currently battling an over-strained health service, an under active labour force and a low output economy – all of which, health experts claim, are in some way by-products of a lack of Government action on tackling obesity in the UK.
Government intervention delayed.
The most recent Government announcement on HFSS told us that planned restrictions on multibuy offers for HFSS products would be delayed by a further two years.
The ban on promotional offers will now join the watershed ban on HFSS advertising in the legislative long grass over concerns of the impact of these policies on consumers at a time of record high food prices (with more stringent policies – such as an extension to the sugar tax –taken off the table completely).
The introduction of both of these policies is now set for 2025, a whole 5 years after they were first floated as part of the Boris Johnson’s 2020 obesity strategy.
Public back calls for greater action.
The failure of successive UK governments to make progress on HFSS has more broadly been attributed to a political aversion to interfering with what people eat, with fears of “nanny-statism” and concerns around looking out-of-touch with the average voter holding politicians back from moving proactively in this space.
However, with recent YouGov polling finding that a large majority of Brits – as much as 80% for some measures – support greater regulation of HFSS sales, the tide of public opinion looks to be turning in favour of intervention.
Less weary about how HFSS restrictions might go down with the public, and keen to demonstrate willingness to go further than the Conservatives, the Labour party has shown a clear intention to get tough on brands for their role in encouraging unhealthy habits.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has already pledged to implement stricter advertising rules on unhealthy products if elected to Government, whilst Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, has confirmed that his team is looking into other ways to crack down on HFSS sales.
Brands take the lead.
And now brands are starting to weigh in. The cost-of-living crisis has seen the food retail sector subjected to unprecedented scrutiny and, whilst we await the new 2025 date for sector-wide regulations, businesses appear keen to avoid becoming the target of frustration over the lack of progress on HFSS.
This willingness to ‘get out in front’ of impending regulations has seen food retailers impose voluntary commitments on HFSS in their stores, with supermarket giants Tesco and Sainsburys both criticising the Government for the delay to volume-led promotions.
We’ve also seen companies urge the Government to go further, with French dairy brand Danone recently calling for an extension of the sugar tax to address the UK’s growing obesity problem.
It looks like the UK might have run out of road to kick the can down on HFSS. While the cost-of-living crisis has stunted progress in this space, campaigners have continued to call for greater action and Brits are becoming increasingly receptive to restrictions on these products.
The Government might have delayed further action on HFSS, but brands should take note of what their competitors are doing and what their customers are calling for and start readying themselves for increased scrutiny on this issue.
As we look ahead to the post cost-of-living landscape, we can expect issues like HFSS to be back on the agenda for governments and holding food retailers more accountable for their role in encouraging unhealthy eating habits will form part of this push.
If you have any questions, or of you would like to know more about HFSS or the UK’s food policy landscape, please contact us below: