Marketing products to children, misleading health claims, excessive salt content… the list of complaints laid at the door of the food industry in recent months continues to grow.
And another item has been added to this list today, this time implicating food retailers – confectionery at the checkouts.
The Food Commission, the UK organisation which is frequently at the heart of these campaigns against what it perceives as the dubious practices of the food industry, is calling on supermarkets, grocery stores and pharmacies to stop displaying snacks at the checkouts, and to put such products out of temptation's reach, the latest attempt to protect the health of the nation’s youth.
The positioning of sweets and snacks at the tills is a widespread phenomenon in the UK, and is frequently the cause of much nagging by children as families wait in the queue to pay for their groceries. Parents more often than not give in to their children, the Food Commission claims, with the result that young people are eating far more sweets, chocolates, crisps and soft drinks than are good for them.
But children are not the only ‘victims’ of this marketing ploy, the Commission claims, with adults frequently giving into the temptation to buy the sweets or snacks on display at the tills.
There is, of course, nothing illegal in what the retailers are doing – far from it. Most confectionery products are bought on impulse, and a position at the checkout is therefore ideal for generating turnover.
Retailers are not the only ones aware of this act, it appears, with the Food Commission citing Nestlé, one of the world’s largest confectionery producers, as saying that if every supermarket displayed chocolate at the checkouts, total chocolate sales would increase by 15 million bars per year in the UK.
Health concerns, rather than the profit margins of the retailers and manufacturers, are at the heart of the Food Commission’s campaign, however.
Similar campaigns in the past – again based on health concerns such as tooth decay – have received the support of retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury and Safeway, but the Commission said that the rollout of new store formats in recent years, coupled with ever more sophisticated marketing techniques and a raft of new products, had led to a considerable amount of backsliding – in fact, there are now more sweets, snacks and sodas on sale at the tills than ever before.
To highlight the need for action on this issue, the Food Commission took the example of a Mars bar, one of the most popular items sold through UK checkouts. Just one of these countline bars can add around 280 kcalories, 43g of sugar and 6.4g of saturated fat to the daily diet, the Commission claimed.
“For a woman such a 'treat' will provide 15 per cent of her recommended maximum intake of energy. For a 10-year-old boy, it would provide nearly three quarters of his maximum recommended intake of sugar and about a third of his maximum daily recommended intake of saturated fat,” the Food Commission said, citing government guidelines for adults.
“Removing calorie-dense, sugary, fatty and salty snacks from checkouts is just one small measure that retailers could take to help address growing public health problems,” the Commission said.
However, recent research by the UK’s Food Advertising Unit also suggests that parents have more will power than the Food Commission gives them credit for, with the pester power of kids – either faced with confectionery at the till or as a result of advertising targeted specifically at them – is not as strong as parents’ sense of what is right and wrong for them to eat.
Asda the worst offender
But not all supermarkets are the same. The Food Commission recognises that a number of store operators have responded to growing customer concern about snacking and keep their checkouts snack-free as a result.
It also sent a letter to most of the major supermarkets in the UK asking them about their policies in this area – the responses make for interesting reading.
Asda, described as the “worst offender” in a survey of supermarkets stocking snacks at the checkout carried out by the Food Commission, declined to comment on the issue.
At the other end of the scale was Waitrose, which has a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to snacks and sweets at the till.
Both the Co-op and Safeway took a similar line in their responses to the Food Commission. The Co-op said that it “prohibits the display of child-targeted products which are high in fat, sugar or salt at our traditional-style supermarket checkouts where children may exert 'pester power' whilst waiting for parents to queue and pay for grocery”.
Safeway, for its part, said that its policy was not to stock snacks at the tills, apart from “at certain times of the year (e.g. Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day), when one in four checkouts may stock products, including snacks and sweets, that relate to that promotion”.
But the Food Commission’s own survey of London stores showed that these policies are not necessarily being implemented everywhere. Safeway, in fact, was beaten only by Asda in the ‘worst offenders’ stakes, while Co-op – for all its fine words and ethical approach - finished in the middle of the league table, behind both Tesco an Sainsbury.
The Food Commission’s survey nonetheless showed that Tesco and Sainsbury were far from the ‘sweet-free’ zones they declared themselves to be a decade ago. Tesco had 68 per cent snack-free checkouts in its larger stores, compared to only 23 per cent in its smaller Tesco Metro Stores, for example – although this is partly because of space restrictions, and of course the fact that the entire Metro convenience store concept is designed to play on top-up and impulse shopping.
Sainsbury, meanwhile, had 58 per cent snack-free checkouts in its larger stores, compared to no snack-free checkouts at all in its Sainsbury Local convenience stores.
Food industry targeted too
But the Food Commission also cites a number of confectionery and snack producers in a bid to show that retailers are under a lot of pressure to place these items at the checkout.
Promotional activity is fierce in this sector, and everyone is fighting not only for shelf space but for prominent positions in the stores themselves – including the all important checkout position.
Cadbury is quoted by the Food Commission as saying that “key brands should occupy key positions” because “the availability of heavily-advertised lines will trigger extra sales”, and there are similar recommendations from Ferrero, Haribo and Mars, with the latter firm quoted by the Commission as saying that “the removal of sweets on the checkout would lead to a 30 per cent fall in confectionery sales”.
Many food producers work hard at devising point-of-sale material and displays which can stimulate interest in their products, but because they ultimately rely on the goodwill of the supermarkets to display their products, they are frequently outspoken in their recommendations.
Nestlé Rowntree, for example, is cited by the report as saying (in one of its trade adverts) that “with 70 per cent of confectionery bought on impulse, retailers should aim to put temptation directly within the shopper's reach”.
Give shoppers the choice
Penny Hawley of the British Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance (BCCCA) told FoodandDrinkEurope.com that consumers wanted to make the choice themselves about whether to buy confectionery and snacks, and that they did not need to be 'nannied' by the Food Commission.
"Three out of five consumers think that they should be able to buy confectionery at the checkout if they want to," she said. "Consumers should be given a choice. The majority of parents do not feel that banning snacks from the checkout is necessary."
She said that modern lifestyles meant that it was important for consumers to be able to find the products they wanted quickly and easily, without having to traipse round each store trying to find the confectionery.
"With our busy modern lifestyles, many of us choose to snack rather than eat three meals a day, and for these people it’s particularly important that they can pick up the food they need on the go, quickly and conveniently."
Hawley said that the BCCCA recognised that some parents did prefer to queue at a snack-free checkout, but that retailers simply had to keep a number of tills free from sweets in order to keep everyone happy.
She also highlighted the BCCCA’s own research, carried out among a representative sample of consumers rather than a self-selecting group, which showed that only 8 per cent of those questioned cited the absence of sweets as a factor influencing which checkout aisle they chose.
The BCCCA survey also showed that 61 per cent of people think they should be able to buy sweets at the checkout if they want.
"Manufacturers of biscuits, cakes, chocolate and confectionery share the concerns voiced in the past decade about the rise in obesity. However, contrary to some claims, over this same period the average consumption of biscuits, cake, chocolate and confectionery in the UK has been static," she stressed.
"International comparisons, and analysis of dietary surveys, suggest no link between consumption of these products and obesity. These products contain valuable nutrients including protein, calcium, iron and vitamins, as well as providing energy to meet the demands of modern lifestyles."
Suggestions that confectionery at checkouts had a direct link to tooth decay were particularly invidious, she said, with little or no direct evidence to prove that this was the case.
"Snacking too often - more than seven times a day - can lead to increased tooth decay, but this cannot be linked to something as simple as putting confectionery at the till. After all, even the most compulsive snacker will be hard pressed to eat seven times a day, and is unlikely to be deterred in any case by removing sweets from the till."