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Food firms ‘harming children with unhealthy products and misleading advertising’

(Philip Toscano/PA)
(Philip Toscano/PA)

The Government has a duty of care to ensure companies stop profiting from “harming” children with unhealthy food and misleading advertisements, health campaigners have said.

Youth campaign group Bite Back believes the Government and food corporations have a collective responsibility for the health of young people which they are currently failing on.

The campaign has been backed by former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and is chaired by former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield.

Speaking on Thursday at the launch of the group’s new campaign, “Fuel Us, Don’t Fool Us”, Sir Patrick said: “There is a rather simple thing for the Government to do here. They’ve got the legislation ready. So there’s a really simple thing they could do if they chose to do it.

“The nation is rather dependent on children, on the future generation, and a healthy future generation – one that is going to make fewer demands on an overstretched health service, one that is going to be healthier throughout their lifespan. That is a really important attribute for any country.”

Researchers at Oxford University, in collaboration with Bite Back, found seven of the 10 biggest global food manufacturers made more than two-thirds (68%) of their UK sales from packaged food and drink in 2022 from products high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS).

Bite Back said Ferrero and Mondelez had the unhealthiest portfolios with an estimated 100% and 98% of sales in 2022 coming from products such as Kinder Surprise and Freddo bars.

Sir Patrick added: “It’s the self-interest of a country to try and get this right and not to allow this progressive potential damage to occur as a result of intensive advertising of foods that actually aren’t the right foods for children to be eating.”

Ms Longfield said the way corporations advertise ultra-processed foods specifically to children, through the use of cartoon characters and bright graphics, is “almost sinister”.

“Knowing what we know about the impact on health and the harm [these foods] are causing, there is an intention to harm, I believe, that isn’t being recognised in boardrooms but needs to be.

“But it’s a price worth paying at the moment for those profits and for investments, and that’s what we need to challenge.”

Sir Patrick Vallance
Sir Patrick Vallance (James Manning/PA)

She said active intervention was needed from the Government to incentivise firms to invest in healthier alternatives.

“It’s not going to happen on its own account – at the moment, it’s a business model that’s out of control and I think we have to see more active intervention from the Government that has ultimately a duty of care within that, and the ability to make change.”

Alice Mazon, 18, one of Bite Back’s youth activists, said unhealthy foods formed the “cultural wallpaper” for younger generations, and challenged the “glorification” of specific ultra-processed products such as protein bars and energy drinks.

Fellow activist Dev Sharma, 19, challenged the inequalities and barriers in accessing healthy food, saying: “Young people growing up in the most disadvantaged areas, like me and my friends, they’re more likely to die 10 years younger than their more affluent peers.

“Just from food-related ill health – I’m talking about something that’s completely preventable – not from crime, not from our own educational outcomes, but from the fact that we’re just eating a bunch of rubbish.

“Food is such an important thing, food brings us all together, and it is now causing me and my friends to die 10 years early, the first generation to die earlier than our parents.”

The Government had “opened the floodgates” for corporations to “control our habits for too long”, Mr Sharma said.

A Ferrero spokesman said: “The Ferrero data in Bite Back’s analysis does not reflect all our non-HFSS product portfolio as these have been excluded.

“At Ferrero, we make unique high-quality products and are constantly evolving our portfolio to meet a wide range of consumer needs to provide choice. Over 90% of our products come in portions of less than 150 calories.”

Unilever said: “The statistics Bite Back have included in their report are based on looking at only 63% of our products rather than our full product range, and are therefore not an accurate representation. Our own published data, capturing 100% of our products in the UK, shows that 32% of our portfolio is non-HFSS.

“We continue to take action to reduce the salt, sugar and calories in our products, keeping their great taste, as well as offering choice to our shoppers by introducing healthier variants to our ranges, and in 2003 we were one of the first companies to apply principles for responsible marketing of foods and beverages to children.”

Researchers analysed 241 packaged brands and more than 5,000 products, concluding that the business models of some of the most successful global food companies operating in the UK were reliant on selling food and drinks that are harmful to children’s health.

The study found manufacturers in the UK spent £55 million in 2022 on online adverts for food and drink products in four categories associated with children’s excess sugar and calorie intake: chocolate (£40,948,000), crisps (£9,300,538), biscuits (£2,869,605) and ice cream (£1,971,071).

Bite Back said seven businesses were responsible for more than 90% of online ad spending in the UK in 2022 by manufacturers for chocolate, crisps, biscuits and ice cream.

A Government spokesperson said: “We are taking strong action to encourage healthier food choices and to tackle obesity – recognising that it is the second biggest cause of cancer and costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year – while respecting the importance of individual choice.

“We have introduced calorie labelling on food sold in restaurants, cafes and takeaways to empower people to make informed personal choices about their lifestyle, and thanks to our salt reduction programme, the amount of salt in food has fallen by around 20%.

“Pre-packed foods are required to set out a variety of information to aid shoppers – including a list of ingredients and nutritional data. Any concerns about the mislabelling of food products should be reported to the local trading standards to investigate.”