Mixed response from industry as FSA Action Plan recommends voluntary approach

The Food Standards Agency has shied away from recommending a ban on advertising to children but has backed some form of health signposting on food to help the fight against obesity.
At a board meeting this week, the FSA agreed its long-awaited Action Plan on Food Promotions and Children’s Diets following consultation with stakeholders.This plan sets out what it expects from suppliers, retailers and foodservice companies and will feed into the government’s White Paper on public health, which will be published in the autumn.
The key sops to industry are the decision to recommend a voluntary approach to promotion of food to children and extended deadlines on the implementation of labelling schemes (see right).
The FSA appears to have moved away from the concentration on a red, amber, green traffic light system of labelling, as preferred by health professionals, and towards the use of high, medium and low descriptors for fat, sugar and salt.
However a spokesman said traffic lights not been ruled out. “Traffic lights are one of the options but there are other possibilities. We are calling for some form of signposting and have embarked on consumer research to find out what is meaningful for consumers.”
The FSA pointed to initiatives such as Tesco’s forthcoming pilot scheme for traffic lights, the Co-op’s high/medium/low approach and work by Danone as proving signposting is practical. A group of nutritionists has been established to set criteria as to what constitutes healthy and unhealthy food in relation to fat, sugar and salt. It will report back in the autumn.
The voluntary approach to promotion to children has a two-year cut-off point. The FSA said it would “keep an eye” on industry and do preparatory work on regulation in case the voluntary approach failed.
“The reason we are taking the voluntary approach is that legislation would take longer. This is more flexible and quicker to implement and we are keen on industry trying to take things on itself,” said the spokesman.
It has suggested to government and Ofcom that the most effective option to address the advertising imbalance would be action on the relative amounts of advertising for less healthy foods and the times at which these ads are scheduled.
Government departments should not endorse promotional campaigns that encourage children to consume foods, meals or snacks high in fat, sugar or salt, it says. Food manufacturers and foodservice operators should use promotions, sponsorship, celebrities and new media to entice children to make healthy food choices.
Siân Harrington