The state of HFSS regulation in the UK and what it means for FMCG brands and retailers


The state of HFSS regulation in the UK and what it means for FMCG brands and retailers

  • Rules controlling less healthy (“HFSS”) products have been in (partial) effect in England since last October. Numerous HFSS-related initiatives are expected across the UK over the coming months and years.   
  • To assess what these unprecedented regulatory measures mean for FMCG (CPG) brands, NIQ Brandbank turned to our resident expert on all things FMCG (CPG), James Peach. 

HFSS : Six months on

It may feel as if HFSS has been with us forever. Perhaps that’s because, even though the first element (location restrictions) of regulatory restrictions in England only came into effect in October 2022, the wider HFSS policy discussion has been going on (in one form or another) for some time now.    

Getting to grips with HFSS foods is a core part of the UK government’s Obesity Strategy.  It has long been understood that “obesity is a complex problem with multiple drivers [and that] most of them [sit] outside the health sector’1.”  Furthermore, previous attempts to tackle certain elements of HFSS policy have not always had the desired effect. So, it is unsurprising to find ourselves where we are today, with partial implementation of HFSS regulations in England (and more provisions to come into effect later this year); Scotland and Wales looking to introduce similar measures in the not-too-distant future, and a tightening of UK-wide advertising restrictions for HFSS products slated for 2025. 

In this brief article, and amidst all of this activity, we will take a look at some of the key questions regarding HFSS policy going forward.  So, let’s start with one of the most obvious.

Are the placement restrictions (already in effect in England) being viewed as a success?

The answer to this will likely very much depend on who you are asking.  A reported 20% reduction in some HFSS categories (The Grocer) may, at face value, put a smile on the faces of health policy professionals, but it is not likely to please food businesses already feeling the squeeze from multiple other market pressures.  Moreover, any positivity from health professionals could be short-lived if the reported increase in off-fixture displays of alcohol products (to compensate for the restricted placement of HFSS categories) serves to undermine the ultimate aim of the policy: to address obesity and other diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCD’s) in adults. 

In reality, it’s still early to judge the final impact of these nascent measures.  No doubt, once the full restrictions come into effect in England, and any in Scotland and Wales (and, of course, the UK-wide Ad restrictions), we’ll get a much clearer picture of whether it results in meaningful improvements to individual health outcomes over time, or whether people carry on with less healthy consumption patterns.  Only time will tell whether there will be a significant shift to other, regulation-swerving, ostensibly healthy alternatives. 

Will the volume promotion restrictions (in England) still come into effect?

As things stand today, yes.  Restrictions on volume promotions for specified foods in England are set to come into effect on 1 October 2023.  It is worth noting however, the government’s remarks (made when announcing the delay): 

The delay to restrictions on multi-buy deals will allow the government to review and monitor the impact of the restrictions on the cost of living in light of an unprecedented global economic situation.

It remains to be seen what conclusions the government will come to in the context of impending volume promotion restrictions to HFSS products.

Are the devolved UK nations going to follow suit?

Scotland and Wales have consulted on their own HFSS policy and restrictions.  These are broadly similar but not identical.  For example, they will likely use the same Nutrient Profile Model but the scope of the food categories to be regulated could potentially be different from England.  For instance, Scotland is considering 4 different sets of category options for foods to be restricted, while Wales is considering 2 different sets. 

Here also, there are familiar calls for the measures to be paused amidst cost-of-living pressures. So far, previous such calls have not been heeded

Naturally, it is desirable that any separate measures across the UK are as aligned as possible.  Certainly, there have been industry callsfor alignment, but it is not yet clear what the final form of any Scotland and Wales HFSS restrictions will be.

What’s happening with the increased HFSS Advertising restrictions?

These are currently set to come into effect 1 October 2025.  The government ran a 16-week consultation (ending 31 March 2023), inviting comments on the draft regulations.  Any responses will be reviewed before the regulations are laid before Parliament. 

The restrictions will: 

  • Introduce a 9pm TV watershed for HFSS products and a restriction of paid-for HFSS advertising online 
  • Mean all on-demand programme services (ODPS) under the jurisdiction of the UK, and therefore regulated by Ofcom, will be included in the TV watershed for HFSS advertising 
  • Mean non-UK regulated ODPS will be included in the restriction of paid-for HFSS advertising online because they are outside UK jurisdiction 

The implications for FMCG, food manufacturers and retailers arising from the regulations in effect so far (and ongoing), cannot be overstated.  As the obligated party under the regulations, retailers are putting huge effort into understanding the HFSS status of their whole ranges, and this necessarily requires co-operation from brand manufacturers.   

As we all move forward into the above-stated additional anticipated HFSS controls, the need for such industry co-operation will only intensify.  Solutions, which leverage the good will (that we have seen so far) and facilitate industry co-operation, will continue to be the key to successfully navigating these uncharted regulatory waters. 

1 The evolution of policy and actions to tackle obesity in England, SA Jebb, PN Aveyard, C Hawkes