Can food retailers sit on the fence much longer about children’s food? The launch of the latest round of the Children’s Food Bill in Parliament, with an even bigger coalition of public bodies backing it, suggests that the issue is just not going away. Support for the Bill keeps growing outside too. Last time it won backing from around one third of Parliament. And still ministers didn’t listen.
But in this new parliament, the government’s majority is smaller; still hefty but smaller. And its love affair with big food retailers is under greater scrutiny, not least in the press. Just how big can the big four’s (or Tesco’s) market share get before the authorities judge it a monopoly? This is no longer just an academic question. Or the UK no longer the market but Europe?
In which case big company market share conveniently drops.
But let’s assume that government and retailer pronouncements about listening to consumers are meant. What line ought retailers to take on food advertising, especially for children? Overwhelmingly, parents and the general public want controls. But responsibility for a decision bounced between the Cabinet Office, Ofcom, Food Standards Agency, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Health. Last year, DH finally gave a three-year warning: sort it out or we’ll act. The clock is ticking.
On one side, sceptics among retailers argue that control on children’s food advertising is a non-starter. It smacks of the nanny state. The European Directive enshrines freedom of information across member states. There’s no need for Scandinavian-style controls on ads. Teach children how to protect themselves. Or leave it to parents just to turn TVs off (although the bombardment is unremitting, from web sites to texting, not just TV or press).
On the other side are those who mutter that retailers would sell their grannies if to do so were profitable and legitimate. And that the only way forward is to legislate.
The EU TV without frontiers directive is being revised. A new Health Commissioner is interested but early signs are that the Directorate General for Health and Consumer Affairs’ new Obesity Platform, a round table aiming for self-restraint, is not likely to deliver big changes needed.
Optimists among us think that reason
must ultimately prevail. My argument is that every month retailers delay acting, they make this issue inevitably head into the direction of the scenario that developed for tobacco marketing - something ultimately dealt with by legislation. It’s legal (and profitable) to sell cigarettes, but pretty dishonourable to do so.
Welcome though it would be for one big retailer (or a small one, come to think of it) to break ranks and act unilaterally, this would not be enough.
The evidence suggests whole populations need to change. After the Food Standards Agency’s Hastings report in 2003, there’s not much doubt that the bulk of evidence points to how effective food marketing targeting children can be.
So if we want children to grow up in a health-enhancing environment, those cultural messages have to be given a different framework. Individual choice simply won’t work.
The old advertising industry code stated commercials should be decent, legal and truthful. It sounded good, but a bit like the alcohol industry’s bland admonishments to drink wisely, this self-regulation system is now in tatters. The goalposts have moved and food retailers are lagging behind.
They look ever more complacent, like junkies locked on to something that gives a tremendous buzz in the short term, forgetting that their health suffers inevitably in the longer term. Will retailers rise to this challenge? Or bury their heads? Will the industry sign up to the Children’s Food Bill? Is anybody there?