When Morrisons revealed last week that it was trialling an age restriction on sales of energy drinks, it came as a bolt out of the blue.

One day it wasn’t on anyone’s radar the next day its announcement - that under-16s would need to be accompanied by an adult if they wanted to buy an energy drink containing over 150mg of caffeine per litre - was splashed all over the national news.

So what spurred Morrisons into action, what do suppliers make of the move, and will other retailers follow suit?

The timing of the trial is still not entirely clear. Although new labelling legislation around energy drinks comes into force next month (see box below), the trial goes far beyond any legislation in terms of its requirements.

Morrisons says it had become “increasingly aware of the concerns of politicians, teachers and parents about the potential impact of high-caffeine energy drinks on young people.”

“We decided to take a leadership position by running a limited trial across the UK, banning the sale of such drinks to under-16s and giving us the opportunity to listen to the feedback of customers young and old,” says Guy Mason, head of corporate affairs. “The move is consistent with the British soft drinks Association code of practice, and guidance from the FSA, that children should only consume caffeine in moderation.”

Bad press

Without doubt energy drinks have attracted bad press recently, notably in the US, where last month, the family of a Brooklyn man who died after consuming a can of Red Bull, filed an $85m wrongful death lawsuit.

Also in the US, the Drug Abuse Warning Network last year reported a tenfold increase in emergency room visits resulting from energy drink consumption - with 70% of these cases involving children aged between 12 and 17.

And a story about the death of a UK-based man who died allegedly from excessive consumption of energy mints, attracted international coverage.

“The move is consistent with BSDA and FSA guidance”

Guy Mason, Morrisons

Yet the Morrisons action goes far beyond the guidance provided by the BSDA, the FSA, the government or the EU.

BSDA director general Gavin Partington is certainly befuddled. The association’s code already dictates that high caffeine content soft drinks are not suitable for children, specifies that this information should be clearly stated on the label and should not be promoted, or marketed, to those under 16. The EU legislation goes still further. So why add further restrictions?

“Naturally it’s for retailers to decide what they wish to do,” says Partington. “We believe our code is the responsible way to ensure parents have the information necessary to decide what is right for their families.”

The good news for soft drinks suppliers is that other retailers seem unlikely to follow its lead. Tesco’s focus appears to be on sugar reduction. A spokesman for Sainsbury’s confirms the retailer has no plans to introduce an age restraint on energy drinks. Asda failed to clarify its position before this article went to press.

Some soft drinks suppliers are also keeping their opinions to themselves. CCE - owner of Relentless and Monster - declined to comment. But Red Bull’s off-premise director Jon Hughes said: “Red Bull energy drink is available in 165 countries because health authorities around the world have concluded it is safe to drink. One 250ml can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine, similar to one cup of coffee. Just as coffee is not marketed towards children, so energy drinks are not marketed towards them.”

A spokesman for AG Barr, owner of the Rockstar energy drink brand, also insists that it’s fully complying with the laws of the land and best practice: “AG Barr fully supports the soft drinks industry code of practice. We do not advertise or promote high caffeine content soft drinks to those under 16. Energy drinks are not suitable for children and we say this on our labels.”

Teething problems

For the time being at least, the age restriction at Morrisons is merely a trial - indeed it has already encountered teething problems. Because the retailer is using the Challenge 25 scheme to ensure the policy is enforced consistently, it’s caused some issues at the checkout, admits Mason. “We know some of our younger customers are having difficulty proving they are 16, and we will have to take this into account when we make our decision in the new year on whether or not to roll this out.”

Although energy drink manufacturers shouldn’t worry just yet about the prospects of a nationwide ban being enforced, Mason claims “a number of people who have seen what we are doing have praised us.”

Energy drink legislative changes

The British Soft Drinks Association published a voluntary code of practice in April 2010 that recommended prominent labelling on energy drinks, such as ‘Not suitable for children, pregnant women and persons sensitive to caffeine’.

The code also stated that energy drinks should not be promoted or marketed to persons under 16 years of age.

However, new EU labelling legislation, which comes into force from 13 December, will require additional caffeine labelling for high-caffeine drinks and foods - where caffeine is added for a physiological effect.

The Food Information Regulation (EU) 1169/2011 states that any drink containing more than 150mg of caffeine per litre must be labelled: ‘High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women.’

This warning must be placed “in the same field of vision as the name of the beverage”, followed by a reference in brackets to the caffeine content expressed in mg per 100ml.