According to The Grocer, the UK government is only planning to give local authorities in England a total of £35,000 a year (that’s for all of them) to enforce the HFSS promotion rules.
Our regular readers will be aware that if retailers do not comply with the provisions of the Food (Promotion and Placement) (England) Regulations 2021 (“Regulations”), they may be subject to improvement notices by local authorities. They can also end up with fines of £2,500 under the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008, and potentially criminal prosecutions.
The rules require medium and larger retailers to ensure that foods high in fat, sugar or salt are not placed in prominent locations in physical and online stores, such as at store entrances, aisle ends and checkouts (and their online equivalents). Further rules on volume discounts, such as “buy one get one free offers” were delayed until October 2023 due to the cost of living crisis. However, given the repeated delays to HFSS legislation we have seen over the last year, it remains to be seen if this will happen.
The Grocer says that the Department for Health and Social Care has also said that it does not know how many enforcement actions Trading Standards authorities have brought since the rules came into force in October 2022. The Regulations provide for authorities to issue reports about enforcement activity “from time to time”. In addition, under section 67 of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 a review will be carried out to determine whether enforcement of the regulations has been proportionate and effective. The conclusions of the review must be set out in a report to be published within three years from when regulations came into force (that is, by October 2025).
If Trading Standards are not given adequate resources, one wonders how they will be able to provide the reports and how the government will be able to comply with its own rules.
In the past we have been quite critical of the government’s HFSS rules; but having introduced them, the government now needs to provide additional resources to local authorities to support successful implementation and enforcement.
As well as restrictions on promotions, controls on advertising HFSS products on TV and online are set to come into force in October 2025. Ofcom recently published its annual plan of work in which it said that it is preparing for the new restrictions.
One of the issues with HFSS regulation has been that it is such an emotive subject. Boris Johnson previously led a personal charge on HFSS promotion, after being hospitalised as a result of Covid-19 complications that he believed were caused by poor health and fitness, but also a more general obesity crisis in the UK. However, when Liz Truss later took up the reins, she famously told Tory conference attendees in 2022 that she had no interest in how many two-for-one offers people buy at the supermarket. And now here we are in 2023, still waiting and wondering whether much of the proposed legislation will ever come to bear.
When the rules came in, Trading Standards organisation CTSI told The Grocer it would “take the biscuit” to expect “rigorous and ongoing” enforcement of new HFSS restrictions, given “limited funding” available.