One year into England’s HFSS regulations: ‘Too many unhealthy food and drink products remain highly visible both instore and online’

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

While HFSS legislations have started to have a positive impact by shifting focus away from less healthy options, a new report reveals that not all supermarkets are doing their bit. Pic: GettyImages
While HFSS legislations have started to have a positive impact by shifting focus away from less healthy options, a new report reveals that not all supermarkets are doing their bit. Pic: GettyImages

Related tags HFSS legislation Obesity Junk food Marketing Obesity Health Alliance Food Active Uk government

A report by Obesity Health Alliance and Food Active has revealed that some supermarkets in England are showing ‘a blatant disregard’ for government regulations and are still placing HFSS products (high in fat, salt or sugar) in prominent locations.

The UK government’s HFSS regulations were announced under PM Boris Johnson’s National Obesity Strategy in July 2020 in an effort to curb the nation’s rapidly expanding waistlines.

The series of strategies were all set to come into force in October 2022, however, some were delayed for a year, following the ‘unprecedented’ cost-of-living crisis that hard-up Brits were facing at the time.

The ban on HFSS volume-based promotions (buy one get one free, 50% extra and so forth) has again been pushed back – to October 2025 – while the limits on advertising HFSS foods online and on TV before 9pm is set to come into force in January 2025, having been delayed from a January 2023 deadline.

Meanwhile, the restrictions on the placement of HFSS foods in prominent locations – both instore and online – came into force in October 2022.

The NPM was developed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2004-2005 as a tool to help Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator) differentiate foods and improve the balance of television advertising to children.

The ruling decrees that retailers with more than 50 employees or in stores larger than 2,000 sq ft. in England are no longer able to display, in areas that are known to drive sales (impulse buys), the products defined as ‘less healthy’ by the Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM) These are the high contributors to calories and typically include crisps, sweets, chocolate, ice creams, sugary yoghurts and pizzas, among others.

Similar restrictions will only come into force in Wales in 2025, while the Scottish government has yet to implement anything.

HFSS Getty
Pic: GettyImages

Redesigned for health

The Obesity Health Alliance and Food Active’s report found many of the smaller stores on the High Street, as well as larger stores out of town, have gone to some effort to ‘redesign their stores for health’ – replacing so-called ‘junk food’ with items like whole fruit, nuts, flowers, cards and newspapers.

However, it also reveals some supermarkets are showing ‘a blatant disregard for the policy’.

Between July and October, field researchers visited 25 major retailers in London, South West and North East of England and found that, while ‘most stores were operating within the spirit of the law, if not quite the letter’, some stores were ‘mainly’ non-compliant.

Eighteen of the 25 stores (72%) were ‘mainly’ compliant, with seven potentially breaching compliance by placing foods scoring 4 or more points – such as Texan BBQ Pringles (13), La Boulangère Pains Au Chocolat (18) and Kit Kat Cereal (10) – within prohibited areas, that is, at the entrance, end of aisle and at checkouts.

Fieldwork was also carried out on five supermarket websites to identify potential breaches on the homepage, browsing pages, search results, pop up windows, checkout area and favourites/recommended for you pages.

Again, the watchdogs ‘found good adherence to the legislation’ with non-HFSS products like milk, cheese, bread, fruits and veggies ‘taking precedent at key locations’.

They also found some HFSS products are still visible on key locations – in particular the homepage – but as they don’t contain an automatic ‘add to basket’ button, they don’t breach regulations.

Two of the sites, however, ‘had potential breaches’, where HFSS products were found in prohibited areas (checkout, favourites page and browsing specific pages). These have been reported to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), said the authors.

More support needed

fat dog Ирина Мещерякова
Pic: GettyImages

Katharine Jenner, director of the OHA, is, on the whole, encouraged by the findings, which “show that regulation can help make the healthy choice the easy choice for everyone.”

However, she emphasised that “due to exemptions in the policy, too many unhealthy food and drink products remain highly visible both instore and online.”

Research suggests both price promotions and positional promotions increase consumer purchasing of HFSS foods,​with end-of-aisle promotions leading to an increase in the sales of 51.7% for sugary carbonated drinks.

The HFSS restrictions, however, are having an impact.

In the first nine months after the rules came into play, this site’s sister publication, The Grocer, reported a 5.6% increase in the sales of healthier products, while for the 12 weeks ending December 2022, Kantar reported healthier sales (+1.9%) for HFSS-compliant products versus a 5.1% sales drop for their non-compliant equivalents.

It's also estimated that retailers have spent £47m to implement the legislation, yet the Institute of Grocery Distribution’s ShopperVista found that 66% of customers hadn’t noticed a difference in store.

But, as always, there’s still room for improvement.

While a survey of trading standards officers and store managers found a ‘good awareness’ of the legislation, numerous stumbling blocks have been detected; no least in the amount of funds available to support enforcement.

According to The Grocer, the government expects to provide less than £35,000 a year to over 300 local food authorities in England to help them enforce the rules. Trading standards organisation Chartered Trading Standards Institute warned not to expect rigorous enforcement given the ‘limited funding’ available.

As such, the report’s authors are calling on government to free up more funding for this. They also want government to commit to regularly reviewing the legislation to ensure it is fit for purpose; and consider how the rules could be applied to the out of home sector.

Finally, it is advising the government finally enforce the 9pm watershed restrictions of less healthy advertising on TV and online media; and bring in the multibuy restrictions on unhealthy food as planned.

“This policy has huge potential to create a healthier environment for our local communities, and this new report shows it has started to have a positive impact by shifting the amount of less healthy options available away from the checkout and other key areas of the store, towards more healthy options being visible,” ​said Prof Matthew Ashton, lead director of public health at Food Active.

“But insight with trading standards officers highlights the challenges being faced locally. Insufficient funding combined with competing priorities mean that enforcement of this important legislation is lacking. There needs to be more support for local authorities to ensure retailers cooperate with the legislation and to hold them accountable.”

Study:

Rapid evidence review: The impact of promotions on high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) food and drink on consumer purchasing and consumption behaviour and the effectiveness of retail environment interventions

Authors: Martin L, Baul L and Angus K

Commissioned report (2017) Edinburgh: NHS Health Scotland