Organisations representing the food and drink industry have written a letter to the Prime Minister highlighting their concerns over the proposed online advertising ban consultation.

consultation has been launched on proposals to ban online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt in the UK.

Research shows children are exposed to over 15 billion adverts for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) online every year, according to gov.uk.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), UK Hospitality, ISBA and the Advertising Association represent more than 800 food and drink manufacturers and 3,000 of the leading brands, the letter says.

The food and drink industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, worth more than £28bn to the economy, employing almost 500,000 people, and with a significant presence in every constituency in the United Kingdom, the letter points out.

It feeds households but also sustains a hospitality industry which in 2019 employed 3.2 million people, generated £133bn in turnover and delivered £43bn in tax receipts to the Treasury. 

The advertising industry supports a further million jobs and finances British culture, media content and sport valued at £10 billion a year. 

“The food and drink sector wholeheartedly supports the Government’s public health policy objectives,” says the letter. “We know we have a key part to play. Food and drink manufacturers will continue to reformulate their products and put healthier or smaller portioned products on the market. We are however greatly concerned by the timing of the recently launched public consultation proposing the option of a complete online advertising ban of a broad range of food and drink products; a disproportionate proposal with an impossibly short time period given for responses given the level of technical detail sought.”

Food and drink manufacturers have played an indispensable part in feeding the nation during the Covid-19 crisis, according to the letter. The industry continues to work closely with the UK Government and devolved administrations to ensure that this continues.

“We are proud that the public has experienced little disruption despite the very real and difficult conditions that we have faced, often increasing production whilst operating Covid secure environments for the safety of our staff,” the letter adds.

The advertising and media industries have played an instrumental role in supporting Government communications by sharing vital public health messaging with the public over the course of the pandemic. 

According to the letter, the food and drink industry is working intensively to minimise the inevitable disruption due to the end of EU transition period and the introduction of new trading provisions from the Northern Ireland protocol. 

Both of these by themselves are very significant undertakings and are both made more perilous by the current operational and financial impacts of the pandemic. 

“The sheer volume of critical work facing food companies in the next few weeks means that at this time we simply cannot give this consultation the resource it deserves and demands,” the letter continues. “Something will have to give. The timing of this consultation is frankly astonishing, especially as the Government’s stated ambition is to introduce these proposed advertising restrictions at the end of 2022. There is no reason to introduce this consultation and demand submission responses with such haste while effectively limiting our opportunity to respond, especially before the end of December.“

Although the Government is committed to evidence-based policy making, the letter adds, the evidence base underpinning these proposals is lacking in both detail and efficacy. 

There is still no agreed definition of which foods the Government is including in these proposals, the letter points out. They are so broad they even capture family favourites from chocolate to peanut butter to sausage rolls. 

“As some of the UK’s leading advertisers, the food and drink industry agree that products high in fat, salt or sugar should not be targeted at children,” adds the letter. “Advertisers use sophisticated online tools, which they have demonstrated to government repeatedly, to aim their advertisements at adult audiences. Why has the Government chosen to disregard this evidence?”

Consumers frequently visit brand websites or engage via social media to find out more about products, especially when new healthier items are launched that have been reformulated. 

The industry is “shocked” that the proposed advertising restrictions will police how producers describe their products on their own websites and social media channels, despite previous assurances that the Government had no interest in doing this, according to the letter. 

These restrictions disproportionately impact SMEs, who make up 96% of the industry. 

“As a matter of urgency we ask that an extension is given to the closing date of this consultation,” the letter concludes. “We also ask for the opportunity to meet with you and the Number 10 health policy team once resource on both sides allows, to discuss alternative approaches that could be considered which would achieve the Government’s aim of reducing child exposure to advertising, without imposing complete bans across the internet and other unnecessary restrictions.”

Signatories of the letter include Nick Reade, Interim General Manager at Mars Wrigley UK, Louise Stigant, UK Managing Director of Mondelez International and Jason Richards, General Manager of PepsiCo UK & Ireland.

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