The UK government wants to take a more active role in the thorny debate over children's diets - a debate which has seen various agencies and lobby groups accuse food producers and retailers of contributing to the rising tide of obesity among British children.
In a bid to take some of the heat out of the issue, the Food Standards Agency has this weekend published a discussion paper on a number of possible options for action on the promotion of foods that could improve children's diets and health.
These options include research, building on existing guidance, best practice, and new regulation, but could also cover more controversial issues such as sponsorship, advertising, labelling, endorsements in-store activity and loyalty schemes.
The Board of the Agency will then decide next year, following public debate, which policy options it will recommend to the government.
The publication of the discussion paper coincides with the launch of a designated website outlining the options, facts and figures and inviting comments, as well as background information.
Sir John Krebs, chair of the Food Standards Agency, said: "We already know that many children's diets contain more fat, sugar and salt than is recommended. We know that the level of obesity in children is rising and, in the words of the Chief Medical Officer, is a health time bomb that could explode.
"By 2010 it could cost £3.6 billion a year and be a very significant factor in the ill health of thousands of people and their families. This is why the Agency is encouraging a wide debate on the options for action that could make a difference. Doing nothing is not an option."
Current figures show that 8.5 per cent of six year olds and 15 per cent of 15 years olds in England are obese, according to Health Check, the annual report of the Chief Medical Officer for England. Furthermore, the National Audit Office's report Tackling Obesity predicts that by 2010 obesity will cost some £3.6 billion a year in England.
This is not the first time the Agency has got involved in the debate. Back in September it published the results of an independent study on whether children's diets were influenced by the marketing of food products, and which concluded that there was indeed a link between advertising and what children ate.
But while this study clearly influenced the FSA's decision to take a more active role in the debate, Krebs was keen to stress that the Agency has not yet decided on what course of action it will take.
"The Agency intends to discuss the options paper at length with consumer groups, retailers, the food and advertising industries and other interested parties," he said. There will also be a public meeting in London in January 2004, he added.
The options under consideration include carrying out further research to establish baseline information to enable the impact of future policies to be evaluated, and assessing whether tighter regulation of the industry can be achieved through the extension of existing regulations.
The FSA said it wanted to discuss the food industry's role in promoting its products to children, looking at issues such as the use of endorsements by celebrities that children are likely to identify with to promote healthier foods rather than less healthy ones, increased advertising for healthier foods and reduced advertising for less healthy foods, the provision of full nutrition information on product ranges aimed at children if the product is high in fat, sugar and/or salt, and offering healthier options, rather than sweets, at supermarket checkouts.
The full list of issues under debate can be found at the FSA's website.
Industry fears heavy hand
The food industry has responded positively to the Agency's proposal. "We welcome the opportunity to continue our participation in this important debate with FSA, the Department of Health and other stakeholders," said Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation.
"The promotion of food and drink to children is already highly regulated. Strict codes of practice exist to govern advertising: currently advertisements may not encourage children to eat or drink frequently throughout the day; condone excessive consumption; or suggest that confectionery or snacks should replace balanced meals."
But the FDF clearly believes that these measures are enough. "The industry takes a very responsible view of advertising, particularly of products aimed at children. Parents will take a dim view of any 'Nanny State' type approaches to matters of personal choice. With an average UK supermarket offering some 30,000 products, the terms 'healthier foods' and 'less healthy foods' are meaningless in the context of a healthy balanced diet.
"Industry, government and educators need to come together to help inform consumers - parents and children - about healthy lifestyles including balanced diets."
Paterson cited another recent study, the Family Food Survey published in August, which showed that only 12.9 per cent of parents said they would like advertising to kids to be banned, and that while the survey showed that parents have reservations about advertising to children, they accept it as a fact of life in a consumer society.
The debate is now likely to shift from deciding who is to blame for the poor health of the nation's children to who is best placed to educate children about what to eat. The food industry clearly fears that the government will be heavy-handed in its efforts to reduce obesity levels; its preferred option is to give parents the opportunity to make these decisions themselves.
But while this latter option clearly has its advantages, it will only be possible after further government intervention to improve the quality of the information available to parents either by tightening labelling and advertising rules or through educating them about a balanced diet.