If supermarkets and their suppliers can hear an eerie rumbling sound building over the horizon, it’s probably that of government targets and regulations on health coming down the tracks.

After a spell in the wilderness as the cost of living crisis dominated all government thinking, the obesity crisis is back driving the agenda with a vengeance, as witnessed by recent events both north and south of the border.

This week, the Scottish government proposed the most draconian clampdown yet on sales of HFSS food. Sweeping recommendations were released yesterday in a consultation that goes much further than the Westminster version, partially introduced in 2022.

As well as a ban on promotions in prominent locations, such as that already in place in England, the plans also include a ban on multibuys and on temporary price promotions for products.

The Scottish government has also decided to add meal deals to its menu of changes, another move at which the UK government baulked.

Supermarket bosses warned the moves, set to be introduced next year, would pile more misery on shoppers just at the time the economy was showing signs of recovering from the financial crisis.

More restrictions ‘inevitable’

However, despite strong industry opposition to the plans, there was little in the way of hope that they would be overturned. One senior source told The Grocer it was “inevitable” the Scottish government would bring in the crackdown and that it would go further than the one south of the border.

Humza Yousaf’s call for a “reset” with business, which saw the plans temporarily halted last year, appears to have been very much a temporary pause in hostilities, despite some concessions in the consultation documents on the range of products in the firing line.

The Scottish government attacks what it calls the “poor” response of the industry to calls for voluntary measures on health improvements in the face of Scotland’s obesity crisis, which is even worse than that in the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, ministers in Wales are drawing up similar proposals which, if introduced, look set to leave England out on a limb as the most lenient of the nations when it comes to health and policing of the food industry. 

Whether that is something that would be tolerated under a Labour government led by Keir Starmer is another matter, of course. 

With a report by the Office for Health Improvement & Disparities showing the voluntary calorie reduction programme it inherited form Public Health England has failed spectacularly to hit its target of reducing calories by 20% by 2024, the pressure is growing in Westminster too.

Last week, National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby launched an astonishing attack on the food industry, calling out FDF CEO Karen Betts and urging food CEOs to “look their children in the eye” and see if they could live with themselves, given the impact of their products on obesity and the state of the NHS.

Marketing HFSS and UPF products

Dimbleby’s call for a complete ban on all HFSS advertising and a similar blackout on all ads for ultra-processed foods (even though nobody can seem to agree exactly what that means) may prove too extreme for a Labour Party keen not to rock the financial boat to adopt, but it shows the extent to which attitudes are hardening.

With that backdrop, today’s call by influential nudge body Nesta for supermarkets to face fines of up to 1% of their annual turnover if they fail to hit proposed new mandatory reduction targets looks, on the surface, like another draconian weapon with which ministers can beat the industry.

However, Nesta claims its plans differ because, unlike in Scotland, they do not propose anything that would reduce sales, while the targets would apply only to the UK’s biggest 11 retailers, not the entire senior supply chain.

The Grocer first revealed in October that Nesta was drawing up a system to mandate the healthiness of supermarket baskets, having already won the backing of Asda and Sainsbury’s.

It claims giving supermarkets adequate motivation, in the form of the threat of GCA-style super fines, while requiring only moderate changes to calories, could see obesity rates slashed by almost a quarter, without hitting consumers in the pocket.

While there were obvious questions about how the plans intend to tackle calories out of home, it’s easy to see the appeal for Labour of such an off-the-shelf proposal, even if Nesta was born out of David Cameron’s policy nudge unit.

As Nesta rightly points out, supermarkets wield enormous influence across the supply chain and are naturally motivated to ensure measures they take don’t hike prices.

And unlike the clampdown coming down the tracks in Scotland, the legislation would not require an army of enforcement officers which, given the perilous state of local authorities in Scotland and the rest of the UK for that matter, threatens to make a mockery of any HFSS clampdown and has been blamed for a “blatant disregard” being shown by many supermarkets in England despite the restrictions in place.

Simply put, how can such a plan be successful if there is nobody to enforce it?