Manufacturers could be told to stop using cartoon characters on packs of high fat, salt and sugar foods aimed at children under a new voluntary code.

The Department of Health's food and drink advertising promotion forum working group met last week to discuss the development of the code, intended to extend restrictions on advertising to food and drink packaging.

The meeting was chaired by FDF director general Melanie Leech and attended by bodies including Dairy UK, Which? and civil servants from the DoH and FSA.

The group agreed to decide this autumn whether to press ahead with a code. If it does, it is expected to use the recently developed Committee of Advertising Practice principles. These are the basis of a code of practice covering non-broadcast advertising, which specify that ads for HFSS lines should not feature licensed characters or celebrities popular with kids. If the code is introduced, the current widespread use of popular TV and film cartoon characters such as Action Man and Bob the Builder could be under threat. However, it is unclear if the code would cover manufacturers' own characters, such as Tony the Tiger and the Dairylea cow.

The idea of a full or partial ban on the use of cartoon characters on packaging was met with approval by Which? "It would help to reassure consumers that the food industry is willing to act on public concerns," said a spokeswoman.

But one branding expert said scrapping cartoon characters would have a major impact on the marketing of some products. "A study found that children as young as three years old were able to recognise certain cartoons," said Jonathon Gabay, from Brand Forensics. "This familiarity with characters almost inevitably leads the child to pester their parents for that particular product.

"Manufacturers would have to find other ways, such as the use of bright colours and shapes."