UK White Paper – Choosing Health: impact on food

United Kingdom

The Government White Paper “Choosing Health: Making Healthy Choices Easier” (CM6374) published in November 2004 dealt with a number of health and corporate social responsibility issues. However, for food companies the main issues concerned proposals for labelling, advertising and anti-obesity, anti binge-drinking measures.

Apart from a further push until the end of the UK Presidency of the EU in 2005 to simplify nutrition labelling and make it mandatory on packaged foods, all the aims proposed were voluntary measures. Nevertheless, there was a definite warning in the White Paper with the statement that, if by early 2007, these voluntary measures had failed to produce change in the nature and balance of food promotion, the government would take action using existing powers or new legislation to implement a framework for regulating the promotion of food to children.

The voluntary measures proposed by the White Paper include:

  • “Signposting” - Signposting was a coding system for food, with criteria set by the government, the Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) and industry.
  • Product development - The development of healthier foods,
  • Labelling information - Developing nutrition labelling and associated messages,
  • Promotion and pricing - Strategies to promote healthier eating, and
  • Customer information and advice - Including healthy eating and the promotion of sensible drinking messages to combat alcohol misuse.

As part of increasing opportunities for healthy choices further proposals included increasing the availability of healthier food and reversing the trend towards larger portion sizes. The proposed targets the development of guidance on portion sizes implementation strategies will be published in a further White Paper sometime in 2005 (see next section). Additionally, in the field of “signposting” there are proposals to restrict the promotion of foods, in particular to children.

The UK White Paper proposal for the “signposting” of foods, providing a code based on the nutritional content of foods, is seen by some as the provision of useful information to consumers. However, the Code is viewed by others as giving a misleading and subjective nutritional view of a specific food as opposed to the promotion of a healthy diet as a whole, in view of the fact that no food should be deemed dangerous in isolation.

This remains a voluntary proposal and we have not, as yet, reached the stage of placing warnings on high fat or calorific foods, or instructions as to how they may be ingested safely. There is a definite shift in emphasis towards the provision of social good by industry, and the threat of regulation is helping to achieve this. These are health conscious times and a careful consideration of the placing and promotion of all foods and consumer products must be taken.

Advertising and perceived “unhealthy” food

Reports from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Office of Communications (OFCOM) were examined in relation to food advertising to children. The FSA’s view was that action to address the imbalance in TV advertising of food to children was justified but it was the combined effect of television advertising and other forms of promotion and marketing that resulted in a significantly greater effect than television alone. The OFCOM report concluded that television advertising had a modest direct effect on children’s food consumption. However, the significance of television advertising was small when compared to other factors linked to childhood obesity such as lack of exercise, family eating habits inside and outside the home, parents, demographics, school policy, public understanding of nutrition, food labelling and other forms of food promotion.

The White Paper concluded that to have maximum effect, action needed to be comprehensive and taken in relation to all forms of food advertising and promotion, including; television advertising, sponsoring and brand sharing, point of sale advertising and labels, wrappers and packaging. Possible options of restriction were provided as:

  • When, where and how frequently certain advertisements and promotions appear
  • The use of cartoon characters, role models, celebrities and glamorisation
  • of foods that children should only eat seldom or in moderation as part of
  • a balanced diet; and
  • The inclusion of clear nutritional information e.g. the signposting system, and/or balanced messages in advertisements to counteract the influence of high fat, salt and sugar food advertisements.

These options would be dependent upon the nutrient profiling scheme that would be developed between the Department of Health and the FSA. Once again, the level of restriction will depend upon where the food falls in the nutrient profiling to be provided by the FSA.

The White Paper proposes strengthening existing voluntary codes in non-broadcast areas including the setting up of a new food and drink advertising and promotion forum to review, supplement, strengthen and bring together existing provisions; and contributing funding to the development of new health initiatives, including positive health campaigns.


Industry has expected the proposals contained in this White Paper for some time now. The general requirements for voluntary action to be taken in relation to labelling and promotion of foods has indeed already been implemented to a large extent by industry. The main difficulty will come in relation to any “signposting” strategy that is developed. It may be argued that if the aims of better education and clearer information are the objectives then the provision of “signposting” may be seen as too much of a blunt instrument for use across a broad populous with different nutritional needs and that this may result in, in effect, less choice for consumers. “Signposting” would put the emphasis on individual foods as opposed to food as part of a balanced diet and its’ adoption as a standard should be carefully monitored.

This article first appeared in our Food industry law bulletin May 2005. To view this publication, please click here to open a new window.