The new Liz Truss government may have paused its plans officially, in the mourning period following the Queen’s death, but the rumour mill is revving up big time. 

With the government understood to be launching a sweeping review to cut red tape, a report in The Guardian suggests that may even involve ditching upcoming plans to crack down on HFSS promotions.

With a mere 15 days to go before some of the biggest changes ever proposed for retail will start coming into force, even the most seasoned public affairs experts reckoned politicians wouldn’t start unpicking the regulations now. Or would they?

Liz Truss is well known for her aversion to the ‘nanny state’. As she famously said:

“People want the government to deliver on issues such as transport, public services, broadband and cutting NHS waiting lists, rather than telling them what to eat,” Truss famously said in her leadership campaign.

But if The Guardian is right – and it is still most definitely an if – she will find a natural ally in new health minister Thérèse Coffey, the cigar-smoking ex-Mars employee. 

The Grocer has already reported how suppliers have for many weeks been piling pressure on the government to reduce the cost of regulation in the face of the cost of living crisis.

And with the HFSS ban estimated to cost more than £1bn a year in terms of lost sales, that struggle was bound to go right to the wire – but even sources in favour of a rethink have been suggesting it is perhaps too far down the line to turn back now.

At the same time this is no straightforward case of industry in one camp and health campaigners in the other.

The war on obesity and the complications of the HFSS proposals have become so deeply entwined in the industry over the past few months (not least in the huge investments supermarkets have put into changing their layouts and promotional strategies) that a u-turn now threatens to cause havoc.

Already, retailers including Tesco and Sainsbury’s have nailed their colours to the mast on the HFSS ban. They have gone as far as saying they will follow the original proposals on banning volume deals from October, along with location deals, even though the government has already delayed the requirements around multibuys for a year.

Nor are NGOs, including the likes of ShareAction, the campaign group that has successfully pushed supermarkets and increasingly suppliers to go further on obesity commitments, likely to lay down without a fight.

And it’s not just supermarkets that would be livid at such a last-minute change. An army of suppliers too have been reformulating their products and innovating in order to comply with the deadline. They too face having their noses put out of joint.

The review is also understood to be looking at whether the government could scrap the soft drinks Sugar Levy, which came into force in 2018, as well as other measures.

And if we are to back evidence-based policies, then it’s also worth looking at the performance of the soft drinks sector since the sugar tax came in, as The Grocer reported in May.

Over the subsequent year, carbonated soft drinks sales grew £164.1m (5.7%) to £3.03bn, with volumes up 1.3% [NielsenIQ 52 w/e 7 September 2019]. Between them, category leaders Coca-Cola and Pepsi alone added £132.3m in sales. Equivalent figures for 2021 show retail sales of carbonated drinks rose 5.6% to £3.39bn, beating the pandemic-driven highs of 2020.

Boris Johnson’s government has already turned down Henry Dimbleby’s call in his National Food Strategy for the tax to be extended to cover other contributors to the obesity crisis, with his proposals for a raft of new fiscal measures on sugar and salt.

Unravelling existing and forthcoming legislation would be an even bigger call. We may be still in the government information blackout, but before long we will find out if the new PM puts her money where her mouth is. If she does it will be bitter sweet for the industry. And not necessarily in a good way.