A new report by Food Active and the Obesity Health Alliance examines the government legislation on where unhealthy foods should be placed in stores and supermarkets to assess whether it is working. Beth Bradshaw guides us through the aims of the legislation and the findings of the report.
One year ago, I wrote a blog for NHD to discuss the new legislation that had very recently been implemented to restrict where certain unhealthy food and drinks could be placed at medium and large stores in England.1
The key aim of the policy seeks to improve our food environment by taking less healthy options out of the spotlight, and instead ensuring healthier food is more easily accessible and more visible in shops, ultimately supporting people to lead healthier lives. The legislation at the time also included restrictions on the promotion of HFSS products by volume (i.e. buy one get one free). However, this has been delayed until October 2025.
So, fast forward 12 months, how have stores fared in adhering to this new legislation? Where have we seen examples of good practice of stores redesigning their layout to take less healthy options out of the spotlight? And where have we seen stores showing a blatant disregard, and what have been the key stumbling blocks for enforcement?
A new report by Food Active and the Obesity Health Alliance,2 published just this weekend (3rd December), goes some way to help provide some initial insight to the questions above.
DO LOCATIONS REALLY MATTER?
Yes, and we aren’t talking about real estate! Where food and drink items are placed in store can be a key factor in influencing what we buy, and ultimately it affects sales. Some of the most effective locations in store are known to be the checkout, end of aisles and store entrances.3
The problem is, the products placed at these effective sales-driving and ultimately consumption-driving locations, are usually not very good for our health. Unfortunately, there was also evidence telling us that this was very much a reality in stores across England: one study found that over 70% of all food and drinks promoted in ‘prime’ locations were products classified as those that ‘contribute significantly to children’s sugar and calorie intake.4
HAVE STORES BEEN COMPLYING WITH THE LEGISLATION?
Our research found that overall, the large majority of stores were adhering to the legislation, and many have worked really hard to redesign their stores to take unhealthy food and drink out of the spotlight. We did identify some potential breaches, however, where retailers were showing blatant disregard for the legislation. We also examined online supermarkets, which are also included in the legislation. Again, we were pleased to see good compliance on the online retail space with just a handful of potential breaches identified in the checkout area and favourites pages.
In saying that, we feel some have not been acting in the spirit of the legislation by exploiting some of the small, yet significant exemptions of the legislation. For example, an unhealthy product on the homepage which features a button that allows customers to add this item directly to their basket, is in breach. Yet, if the button instead says, ‘browse aisle’ or ‘shop now’, directing customers to a page featuring a selection of products, this is permitted. Ultimately, this means unhealthy products can still take pride of place on a supermarket homepage, as long as it doesn’t allow customers to add straight to basket. This exemption surely goes against the key aims of the policy?
WHAT ABOUT THE ENFORCEMENT OF THE LEGISLATION?
We collected the views from over 30 trading standards and environmental health officers across England through an online survey, to understand their awareness of the legislation, experiences of carrying out inspections and finally their views on how they can be better supported to enforce the regulations.
From the officers we spoke to, we found overall good awareness of what the legislation was and what it meant for retailers in terms of changing the way products are placed in stores. However, despite having good awareness, only a small number had received some form of training on carrying out inspections, and none of the officers we spoke to had actually carried out an inspection or issued an improvement notice since it was implemented over a year ago.
One of the key challenges reported by officers was how the current staffing and resource issues within this sector are having an impact on enforcement, and that this legislation falls down the priority list when competing with other responsibilities such as food hygiene and safety inspections. Many felt they simply didn’t have the time to prioritise responsibilities, which could pose a potential hazard to consumers. Officers provided lots of useful suggestions on how the legislation could be improved to better support them in carrying out inspections, including more training opportunities and better identification of in-scope foods, drinks and businesses.
MAXIMISING THE BENEFITS TO OUR NATION’S HEALTH
Based on our findings, the report contains a series of recommendations for government, which will help to strengthen the policy as it enters its second year of operation and maximise the benefits to the nation’s health. At a glance, these recommendations include:
- Ensure adequate funding is provided to local authorities and provide greater training to support officers with enforcement.
- Commit to regularly reviewing the legislation to ensure it is fit for purpose.
- Streamline the process of submitting complaints.
- Consider how this legislation could be applied to the out of home sector.
- Release the consultation response for the 9pm watershed restrictions of less healthy advertising on TV and online media and bring in the multibuy restrictions on unhealthy food as planned.
(Please refer to the report for the full set of recommendations.)
This policy is a fantastic first step and there are lots of good practice and examples of where the food industry is doing their bit to work towards a healthier environment for customers to shop in.
However, legislation is only as good as its enforcement and what is clear from this report is the current level of funding and resources available to trading standards. Without good enforcement, a level playing field is hard to achieve. Realising there is little to no enforcement, more retailers may start to flout the rules, and this may lead to frustration from those who are abiding by the rules and lead to many questioning the policy. We found that some retailers are clearly flouting the rules, and there is a risk this may have a ripple effect without proper enforcement.
Furthermore, this policy was designed to be brought in as a package of other measures that address the marketing mix – addressing the placement of products alone is simply not enough to take unhealthy food out of the spotlight. It must be supported by policies that tackle price promotions, as well as the marketing and advertising of unhealthy products on TV, online, on billboards and bus stops, through sport and on packaging.
Beth Molly Bradshaw, BSc, MSc, ANutr
Food Active, Health Equalities Group
Beth is a Project Manager with healthy weight charity Food Active.
She has a passion for the wider determinants of health and campaigning for
an environment that is more conducive to healthy lifestyles and behaviours.
Email: [email protected]
- Beth Molly Bradshaw (2022). Check it out! New legislation in England removes less healthy food from the spotlight instore [online] Available at: https://www.nhdmag.co.uk/nhdbloglibrary/read_202366/check-it-out-new-legislation-in-england-removes-less-healthy-food-from-the-spotlight-instore-by-beth-molly-bradshaw.html
- Food Active and the Obesity Health Alliance (2023). Location, location, location: Exploring the impact and implementation of the promotion of high in fat, sugar and salt products by locations legislation in England [online] Available at: https://foodactive.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Location_Location_Location_Winter2023_FINAL.pdf
- Wilson A, Buckley E, Buckley J and Bogomolva S (2016). Nudging healthier food and beverage choices through salience and priming: Evidence from a systematic review. Food Quality and Preference. 51:47-64
- Obesity Health Alliance. (2018). Out of place – the extent of unhealthy items in prime locations [online]. Available at: https://foodactive.org.uk/out-of-place-the-extent-of-unhealthy-food-items-in-prime-locations-in-supermarkets/