Corporates and young people at the launch of Bite Back's Food Systems Accelerator

Tesco has joined forces with a group of retailers and suppliers to demand the government takes “meaningful” action to cut childhood obesity, following a series of major backtracks on its public health commitments.

The Grocer can reveal the supermarket and its joint signatories are calling for action to limit marketing exposure of young children to HFSS products, bring in mandatory labelling in store to support healthier options, and set new clear and “achievable” goals for reformulation.

The call comes in the form of a joint statement from the Bite Back 2030 Food Systems Accelerator programme backed by Chartwells, Costa Coffee, Danone, Deliveroo, Innocent, Jamie Oliver Ltd, KFC and Tesco.

The signatories put their names to the statement at the end of last month, just days before ministers shelved plans for a crackdown on junk food advertising until after the next general election, to the fury of health campaign groups.

Bite Back 2030, a youth-led movement working to improve child health in the UK, described the backtrack as a “bitter blow” for young people who were “growing up in a world flooded with fast food”.

“To truly transform the food system into one that is healthier for everyone, we know our industry needs to go further,” says the statement. “To do that, we need a level playing field where all businesses are working to the same goals, supported by policies that incentivise changes that will improve health while remaining fair for consumers and businesses.

“The government should involve businesses, health stakeholders and the young people who are affected most by the current food system to develop and implement evidence-based policies.”

As well as the shelving of the ad ban, ministers have also delayed plans for restrictions on multibuy promotions. Earlier this month it was also announced the industry’s voluntary sugar reduction programme had fallen well short of its target, amid claims the industry had been bombarded with “unrealistic targets”.

Last week government statistics revealed in England 9.9% of children in reception were living with obesity, a figure as high as 13.9% in the most deprived areas.

Among children in year six in England, the average figure was 21.6%, and over 30% in the poorest areas.

The signatories said the cost of living crisis was making it harder for companies to invest in healthier products and said it was vital the government provided leadership.

“Our businesses are united by a joint ambition to overcome these challenges and play our role in positively influencing the health of young people,” the statement says.

“We have met with Bite Back’s youth board members and are now setting a range of change goals in key aspects of our businesses to drive improvements in the health and wellbeing of young people. We are committed to implementing these changes throughout 2023 and beyond, evaluating them, and rolling out successful initiatives across our businesses wherever possible.”

“It’s clear that progressive businesses are committed to playing their role in improving children’s health,” said Caroline Cerny, director of policy and engagement at Bite Back 2030. “This statement sends a clear message to a government that has just massively delayed its own policies, that a level playing field is needed and wanted.”

Dev Sharma, a 17-year-old campaigner with Bite Back, said the delay to the junk food ban was a “huge betrayal of the promises the government made to young people, to protect our health”.

“I am bombarded by junk food ads on a daily basis,” he said. “They’re constantly popping up when I’m gaming, watching videos online and messaging my friends. It’s overwhelming for young people like me.

“I started raising my voice for children’s health when I was 14 years old, but this massive letdown means I’ll be well into my adult life before action is taken. Once again, it’s our health which is suffering as a result of the government’s appalling decisions.”

Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of Sustain, which has launched a nationwide campaign to try to persuade the government to reverse its decision, said: “Ministers have admitted this delay comes at the request of industry, despite 74% of people saying they want their children protected from junk food ads.

“Research shows the government could have saved £76bn over the next 25 years if the obesity strategy had been implemented in full. Instead, this slowing of regulation will make dietary inequalities even worse. We see it as an attack on health.”