Some supermarket stores are showing a “blatant disregard” for the government’s clampdown on promotions of products high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS), while cash-strapped local authorities are unable to take effective action thanks to a chronic lack of enforcement staff, claims a new report by leading health campaign groups.
An investigation by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) found that while most stores have been operating “within the spirit of the law” since rules banning HFSS products in prominent locations came into force in October last year, others had been largely ignoring the rules.
Research carried out between July and October this year covering 25 stores across London, the south west and north east of England, including supermarkets and convenience stores, found more than 70% were “mainly” compliant.
However, it found in seven stores there were potential breaches, with unhealthy food displayed in key locations, while in two stores most promotions were non-complaint.
“Some stores were showing a blatant disregard for the policy and for child health and were ‘mainly’ non-compliant,” says the report.
“We found staff in compliant stores had a high awareness that they should not be placing unhealthy food and drinks near the checkouts and other high dwell time areas.”
But it adds: “In low compliant stores, staff had been left in the dark.”
The OHA, a coalition of more than 40 health campaign groups, said its findings also showed the Trading Standards staffing crisis was having a major impact on enforcement of the new rules. The lack of enforcement capacity is despite the government shelving a key part of its original proposals, the ban on HFSS multibuy promotions, until October 2025.
The survey found that while there was “good awareness” of the legislation among Trading Standards officers, the number of inspections carried out was “minimal”.
“Officers reported staffing issues and competing priorities as key issues,” said the report. “Reporting of potential breaches in-store is a challenge.”
The Grocer has previously revealed growing concern the ban is not being enforced.
Stores that fail to comply with the rules on HFSS promotions can be served with improvement notices by local authorities, which can escalate to fines from £2,500 upwards, and even criminal prosecutions.
However, last month the FSA warned there were “critical” shortages of frontline enforcement staff to carry out food safety and food law checks.
In October, OHA director Katharine Jenner told The Grocer she was generally “incredibly impressed” with the way the big retailers have responded to the new rules a year on. She said it was “not just the fancier ones but the budget supermarkets too”.
However, Jenner also pointed to examples of “atrocious” compliance and said retailers were being allowed to break the rules because of the lack of enforcement capacity.
The Grocer revealed in May the government was providing less than £35k a year to Trading Standards in England – less than £250 per local authority – to enforce the rules.
Action on Sugar, one of the groups in the Alliance, has accused some retailers of actively looking for loopholes to exploit the situation.
One leading expert told The Grocer compliance to the HFSS rules had been “very patchy”.
“It varies massively from store to store, but every day I see examples of breaches. It has happened on a regular basis.”
The OHA also carried out checks on supermarket websites, where prominent promotions of HFSS products are also subject to restrictions, but said it found “good adherence to the legislation”.
The report concluded many retailers were “doing their bit” to enforce the regulations, but said stores where potential breaches had been found “need to work harder to take unhealthy food out of key locations”.
The report calls on the government to commit to regularly reviewing the legislation to ensure it is fit for purpose, as well as ensuring adequate funding is provided to local authorities in order to effectively implement the legislation, and ensure this is ring-fenced.
It also urges the government to revive shelved plans for the ban on HFSS multibuys and a clampdown on junk food advertising.
“Promotion of HFSS food and drink at key locations in store will only address one part of the marketing mix,” said the report.
“To fully take less healthy food out of the spotlight and protect children’s health, promotions by price and marketing across TV, online media and other platforms such as outdoor spaces needs to be addressed.
“We urge the government to release the consultation response for the 9pm watershed restrictions of HFSS advertising on TV and online media, and bring in restrictions on multibuys of unhealthy food.”
“Retailers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds implementing new HFSS regulations,” said BRC director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie.
”One of the biggest challenges has been the lack of clarity and guidance from Government on how to apply them in store; leaving retailers to do their best to interpret and apply them.
”We have worked with the key enforcement bodies who have appreciated retailers’ investment to make the regulations work and we’re confident there is widespread compliance by the supermarkets.”