‘Industry unlikely to self-regulate’

Food labelling and advertising to children are two areas where industry is unlikely to be able to self-regulate and legislation is therefore required, argues Sue Davies from the UK consumer organisation Which?.

Principal food policy adviser of WHICH?, the British consumer association, Sue Davies, explains in an interview with euractiv.com the dual role of a consumer organisation in both providing information to consumers but also campaigning for government and industry to take action so that consumers can benefit. As to the obesity debate, she regrets that "fundamental principles are still being disputed rather than industry really acknowledging that there is an issue". She highlights, in particular, the urgent need for more action on food labelling and advertising to children.

Can we rely on industry self-regulation in the EU fight against obesity?

There are many areas where we still think more action is needed, such as food labelling, where we want to see simple, multiple traffic lights on the front of packs. Several retailers and manufacturers are using them in the UK and when you actually look at the independent research – it shows that it is the most useful format for consumers. So labelling is one area where we are sceptical about industry being able to do that voluntarily, unless we see a big change, and, ultimately, legislation is required to bring that into an effect. 

Another issue is advertising to children. We have heard that industry is moving on this, but we see that we're nowhere near of the kind of action we think needs to be taken. The action taken so far by the industry seems only aimed at the smallest children. And there are sectors that are not doing anything at all. We want to see the marketing of unhealthy foods (high in fat, sugar or salt) to children stopped. Whether it is, for example, confectionary, breakfast cereals or ready-meals that are high in fat, salt or sugar. There is a whole range of products specifically targeted at children, using cartoon characters, internet sites for children, encouraging children to send text messages, sponsorship of different events that appeal to children, putting adverts in children’s magazines and of course television advertising. 

However, people often say that 'tackle marketing and everything will be fine' – when it is only one issue. We need all the action that is going on in schools, we need further action on reformulation and we need labeling and of course physical activity. But if you don’t tackle the issue of how unhealthy foods are marketed to children as such (in UK it is 80-90% of all adverts targeted to children are for high fat, sugar and salt foods) you can never get children to eat healthy school meals or to think positively about healthy food, if they are continuously bombarded with unhealthy food adverts. 

How do you percieve the role of parents?

In terms of parental responsibility, we have produced information leaflets so that they can see at glance what contains a lot of fat, for example. People understand the general message that they should be cutting down on fat, sugar and salt, but when they see a food label and a figure they don’t necessarily know what is a high and low amount. This is why want the introduction of traffic lights. 

We have also produced a leaflet on 'top tips for parents' on how to fight the tricks used to push unhealthy foods to children. It is about how parents can make it a game going around the supermarket to try to make healthy food more appealing for children. So we try to help parents as well but when we talk to them they often say that they know very well what their children should be eating but they just can’t bear their children crying and screaming for a toy in a cereal package or a cartoon character in a tin. So you can't really leave the parent just on their own. 

And your action towards governments?

We conduct our research, present the results to governments and ask them to take action. We would like to give industry the opportunity to do it voluntarily but if they won't then we think that legislation needs to be introduced because the scale of the problem is just so ridiculous. 

Industry should be responsible and respond. There's clear evidence of what needs to happen but in our point of view, we are not seeing the kind of reaction we think should be seen. We still see fundamental principles being disputed and we are just seeing like very small token gestures rather than industry really acknowledging that there is an issue. And we need to see this from a long-term point of view, not just in terms of protecting short-term profits. They need to think of changing their marketing practices in the longer term. 

Some companies have already said they won't do such and such marketing, or marketing to six-year-olds, for example. In the UK, 21% of teenagers are obese, so you can't just look at the little ones, you need to look at the older children too. Healthy school meals will never appear interesting to these youngster if foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt are made much more appealing.

Are people aware of problems linked with obesity?

People are more interested in health and have in recent years become aware of the problems, but it is not just about raising awareness, it is about giving people practical tools to put that into practice. According to our research, the traffic lights scheme is overwhelmingly judged as the most useful for the consumers.

What is of particular concern currently is that we have different labeling schemes. And we do not want to go to a single labeling scheme that would be completely unhelpful for consumers. So that is where we are sceptical about getting there voluntarily. 

Industry should have the opportunity – we would like to see responsible industry voluntarily taking action but both on marketing and labeling, which we see as the two key issues action is needed on, we see only a small number of companies basing their approach on what research actually shows to be the most useful for consumers.

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