Rather worryingly, our joint report found approximately a quarter of the stores visited had put sweets, crisps, fizzy drinks or other so-called “less healthy” foods in prominent parts of the shop.
That’s despite medium to large stores in England being banned from placing HFSS foods at key locations such as checkouts, end of aisles and store entrances.
Our snapshot analysis found that since the ban came into force in October 2022, it has made significant inroads in taking unhealthy food out of the spotlight. But it remains clear that law without enforcement is just advice.
When the government introduced regulations on food promotion and placement in England, it gave Trading Standards and environmental health officers powers to fine large supermarkets if they breached the regulations.
Still, our report found a worrying minority were showing blatant disregard for the regulations and a handful of breaches were found both in-store and online.
The Trading Standards and environmental health officers we spoke to felt they simply did not have the resource to enforce this legislation. This was noted due to a multitude of issues including staffing issues within the sector, inadequate funding from central government, and competing priorities with the increasing number of responsibilities assumed by officers.
The report also identified many areas where the policy could go further to fully maximise the benefits to our nation’s health, and take unhealthy food and drink out of the spotlight. However, due to the many exemptions within the legislation, this is not always the case.
These exemptions range from small technicalities such as what text is displayed on a button of an advertisement on the homepage, to glaring holes such as excluding the out-of-home sector and smaller independent stores.
Other examples of exemptions include food groups that are often HFSS. Unpackaged baked goods including doughnuts, pies and party food, for example, are now heavily present at key locations.
We also found that foods such as sugar-free sweets and drinks are heavily present at key locations in store. While these are not HFSS, they are still highly processed.
Another concern is that smaller convenience stores and corner shops are exempt from the legislation, and many young people often use these stores to purchase unhealthy products on their journey to and from school.
We now urge the government to provide more support to local enforcement agencies, while reviewing the legislation and the significant loopholes that have been exposed in our report.
What’s more, we need ministers to commit to introducing the 9pm watershed restrictions of less healthy advertising on TV and online media, and bring in multibuy restrictions on unhealthy food as planned.