Government health bosses are to start consultations over calorie labelling on restaurant, café and takeaway menus as part of new plans aimed at combatting childhood obesity.

This is one of the measures outlined in the second part of the Department of Health and Social Care’s Childhood obesity: a plan for action, which was published yesterday (24 June). Also among the new proposals are:

  • A ban on ‘unlimited refills of unhealthy foods and drinks’
  • A ban on displaying ‘unhealthy food’ at checkouts or including it in buy-one-get-one-free deals
  • A ban on the sale of high-caffeine energy drinks to children
  • TV and online ad restrictions to prevent children from being targeted by these ‘unhealthy products’
  • Getting young children more active at school

“One in three children are now overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school,” said public health minister Steve Brine. “Overconsumption, combined with reduced activity, is having a catastrophic effect on our children’s health.”

The plans have raised concerns among food and drink suppliers, who are already working to reformulate products to meet sugar and calorie-reduction targets.

While welcoming the government’s commitment to a full consultation on the proposals, Food & Drink Federation corporate affairs director Tim Rycroft said: “There will be deep disquiet in the food and drink manufacturing sector today.

“Advertising and promotions underpin the healthy, vibrant and innovative market for food and drink that UK shoppers love. If government restricts our ability to advertise and promote new healthier options to shoppers, it could risk the success of the reformulation programme.  Any further restrictions will have to pass stern tests around targeting and effectiveness.”

With regards to nutritional labelling on menus, the government said around a quarter of food bought to eat outside the home has calorie labelling at the point of sale or choice, such as on a menu. It added that this information is often given in inconsistent ways.

The government plans to introduce legislation to make consistent calorie labelling mandatory in England for the out of home sector and will consult, before the end of this year, on the best way to implement calorie labelling.

It added, however, that as the cost of compliance could be disproportionately high for micro-businesses (those with less than 10 staff) it would be consulting on whether micro-businesses should be excluded or given a longer implementation period.

“We also intend to provide guidance and methodology to help businesses calculate calorie information,” it said.

In good news for business such as Finsbury Foods, which produces licensed character cakes, the government said there were currently no plans to ban the use of licensed characters, cartoon characters and celebrities to promote high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products. Research is continuing on the effect of marketing and advertising on children, however.

Also being consulted on is the introduction of a 9pm watershed for online and TV advertising of HFSS products for children.

And the government plans to ban price promotions, such as buy-one-get-one-free, multi-buy offers and unlimited refills of unhealthy foods and drinks, in the retail and out of home sector through legislation.

“In doing so, we aim to stop promotions that encourage bulk buying and over-consumption of unhealthy products,” it stated. “It is not our intention to make food for families eating out as a treat more expensive so offers such as ‘kids eat free’ are not within scope.”

Also in the government’s plans is a ban on the promotion of unhealthy food and drink at checkouts, the end of aisles and store entrances, and a similar approach to online shopping.

“Parents want what is best for their children, but keeping them healthy and active can be difficult,” said Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for health.

“It is near impossible to shield children from exposure to unhealthy foods. Parents are asking for help – we know that over three-quarters of parents find offers for sugary sweets and snacks at checkouts annoying.

“It’s our job to give power to parents to make healthier choices, and to make their life easier in doing so.”