New food retail laws needed to shift balance in favour of healthy foods

The Scottish Government has been urged to get tough on supermarkets to help “change the imbalance of in-store promotions in favour of healthier food”.

Food Standards Scotland, which advises Holyrood on matters of diet, has also renewed calls to extend the sugar tax beyond drinks, improve reformulation and resizing of portions and review labelling laws to ensure consumers have clearer information on products in both the retail and out of home sectors.

Regulation of promotions of high fat, salt and/or sugar food and drink within retail stores and out of home premises should be taken forward “as a priority”, said FSS senior dietary advisor, Dr Gillian Purdon.

Her comments follow new research, commissioned by FSS and carried out by experts at the University of Stirling, examining how the retail food sector can be transformed to encourage shoppers to consume healthier products.

The researchers found that shoppers are “bombarded with presentations, prices and promotions that favour unhealthy products over healthy ones”. Indeed, over many years the desire for unhealthy products has been “encouraged and manipulated” by the retail environment, they noted.

“The environment confronting consumers is not a neutral one, allowing ‘free choice’,” explained Leigh Sparks, the report’s co-author and professor of retail studies at the university. “Promotions and product information, especially, shape consumers’ choices and behaviours. Retailing is both part of the problem, but could be a major part of the solution,” he said.

However, voluntary initiatives and “simple” healthy promotions have failed, he added: “The time to consider a range of actions to alter the architecture of in-store choice may now be upon us.”

In March, FSS warned the food industry that it has 12 months to come up with more effective voluntary agreements to help tackle obesity and drive healthier consumption. The agency has particular concerns about the out of home sector.

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, head of policy and external affairs at the Scottish Retail Consortium, said fruit and vegetables are “heavily price promoted and there has been a proliferation of healthy alternatives”.

Any measures on pricing and promotions will have to be done through regulation or legislation, he added.

“It’s not feasible, or legal, to ask retailers to voluntarily take collective measures in this area. The best way to help improve the nation’s health is for government to take steps to ensure the whole food and drink industry is working collectively, on a level playing field.”

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