A proposed Children's Food Bill, developed by lobby group Sustain and supported by 114 national organisations ranging from the British Heart Foundation to Compassion in World Farming, will be presented to the UK Parliament by MP Debra Shipley, and if passed, would effectively prevent the food industry from marketing a range of so-called 'unhealthy' foods to children.
According to Sustain, the bill is designed to "improve children's current and future health and prevent food-related ill-health, such as childhood obesity and the many other diseases which are linked to children's junk food diets", but the food industry has already criticised the proposed legislation for 'demonising' certain types of food.
Sustain's proposal is that the government's Food Standards Agency specify criteria for unhealthy and healthy food, taking into account nutritional content and other criteria such as the presence of additives and contaminants. Based on these criteria, the marketing to children of 'unhealthy' foods would be prohibited.
At the same time, the government would also be required to publish an annual plan to promote healthy foods to children, such as fruit and vegetables.
But Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the body which represents Britain's food manufacturing industry, the Food and Drink Federation, called the proposal to divide foods into 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' categories "simplistic and out of date".
"All foods can play a part in a healthy balanced diet, and demonising individual foods is pointless. Government and industry must work together to produce a generation of informed consumers who can make informed choices about the foods they eat and the lifestyles they adopt. Positive, non-prescriptive messages about how to create a balanced diet and a more active lifestyle is the way to help consumers," he added.
The bill also addresses the types of foods which are available to children at school. It includes proposed regulations to set compositional standards for school meals, improve food education and skills and prevent 'unhealthy' foods from being sold in school vending machines.
Paterson suggested that co-operation rather than regulation was the best way to go. "The food industry is ready and willing to do more to help ensure that marketing is responsible. FDF is clear that we need tight, workable advertising codes and we are working with Ofcom [the advertising regulator] in its review. However, restrictive action rarely delivers positive results. Advertising bans in Sweden and Quebec for example, saw no effect on children's levels of obesity."
But Sustain remains sceptical that a voluntary code would work. "As huge profits are at stake, calls for the junk food industry to act voluntarily are simply naïve," said Charlie Powell, Project Officer at Sustain. "Our coalition of 114 national organisations recognises that statutory measures to improve children's diets are urgently needed."
Problem needs to be tackled
That there is problem with the diet of UK children is clear. Sustain said that the government's own Chief Medical Officer had described childhood obesity as a "public health time bomb" which needs to be defused, and cited data from a 2001 health survey in England suggested that obesity in six year olds had doubled (to 8.5 per cent) and trebled among 15 year olds (to 15 per cent) over a 10-year period.
But what is less clear is what exactly the causes of the obesity 'epidemic' are. Groups such as Sustain and the Food Commission have been quick to designate the food industry as the main culprits, and while there is evidence to suggest that advertising does play an important role in dietary choices (as we reported last year), it is likely to be only one of several factors contributing to declining health levels.
For example, the FSA's research last year suggested that adverts during children's TV times or through promotional tie-ins with programmes, movies or toys did influence what children wanted to buy, but different research from the independent Food Advertising Unit (FAU) showed that parents were generally unswayed by what their children pestered them to buy - suggesting that as long as mum and dad hold the purse strings, advertising directly to children will not necessarily have a direct impact on what they eat.
But the FAU's research also showed that while parents were largely responsible for deciding what their children eat, they were also increasingly unsure of what was good and bad for their diet, suggesting that much more detailed (and clear) nutritional information on labels, and much better education about healthy eating, would have as much of a positive influence on improving diets as any potential ban on junk food ads.
Government to get involved?
The current UK government has largely pursued a 'hands off' policy towards industry - much to the chagrin of numerous lobby groups - and the chances of Sustain's bill garnering sufficient support to be passed are slim, not least given the number of high profile food manufacturers based in the UK, their international reputation and their own not insignificant lobbying power. It would also be bad for the image government which has already been frequently accused of trying to create a 'nanny state'.
But there is also an increasing understanding among the powers-that-be that letting the levels of childhood obesity and other health problems continue to rise unchecked will put even greater pressure on a National Health Service already unable to cope with the worsening health of the nation, and this could prompt the government to take more of a direct role in influencing the nation's diet, though whether this would be through as heavy-handed a measure as banning junk food ads remains to be seen.
More effective government involvement is likely to involve improving education and understanding about dietary requirements and excesses, although the relative lack of success of earlier government-led schemes to promote healthy eating (such as the Five-A-Day programme designed to encourage consumption of five pieces of fruit or vegetables each day) suggests that any such involvement would have to receive far greater support to be effective.
Improving the quality of food labelling information is another possible way for the government to get involved, but any major changes are likely to be opposed by the powerful food manufacturing lobby, and in any case the jury is still out on whether more information on labels is helpful at all in deciding whether to buy a particular food product - without the necessary understanding of what the information means, consumers are unlikely to be any better off.