The unintended consequences of the ‘junk food’ advertising ban

It’s only been a week since Sadiq Khan’s ill-conceived ban on ‘junk food’ advertising across London’s public transport network came into effect, but the unintended consequences are already coming to light.

As I explained last June, ‘junk food’ has no legal definition. Those who want to restrict food advertising clearly have American fast food chains in mind, but the government is not so arbitrary and capricious that it is going to put McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC on a blacklist. That would not only be illegal, it would also make the thinly veiled snobbery behind the anti-obesity crusade awkwardly explicit.

Junk food doesn’t exist and categorising food as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ is a fool’s errand, but if a ban on unhealthy food advertising is to have any scientific or legal credibility, it must be based on quantifiable nutritional information. That is where the Nutrient Profiling Model comes in. It is a system for working out whether a food or drink product is High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS). It’s somewhat arbitrary and subjective, but it has the modest virtue of being consistent. Alas, it is also so puritanical that it classifies hundreds of ordinary food and drink products as being HFSS. As I said last year:

The model was devised by our old friend Mike Rayner who literally believes that God told him to bring about a sugar tax in Britain. All the obvious stuff gets a black mark under Rayner’s model: pizza, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, milkshakes and sugary drinks. It also rules out lots of products that are not typically considered to be ‘junk’ but which can be expected to get caught up in a system that focuses on sugar, salt and fat: ice cream, clotted cream, jam, marmalade, honey, bacon, pretzels, salted peanuts, sweetened fruit juice, smoothies and most sausages.

But then there are the foods that hardly anyone would consider ‘junk’ but which still fail the test: cheese (including half-fat cheese), raisins, sultanas, soy sauce, mustard, most tinned fruit, most yoghurts, most breakfast cereals (including high fibre varieties), peanut butter, Marmite, mayonnaise (light and regular), tomato soup, most cereal bars, many pasta sauces, all butter, fat spreads and olive oil.

It is HFSS food that has been banished from Transport for London’s advertising space. If you didn’t realise this, it is probably because campaign groups, the media and – shamefully – polling companies routinely use the term ‘junk food’ when talking about policy. But it is not ‘junk food’ advertising that has been banned on the tube, nor is it ‘junk food’ advertising that will be banned on television before 9pm if the government gets it way. It would be more accurate to say that it is a ban on food advertising with exemptions for raw ingredients and health food.

Having spent much of the last year warning of the unintended consequences of half-baked anti-obesity policies, I welcomed the jolt of schadenfraude I got from reading about Farmdrop’s battle with TfL. Farmdrop is the woke mirror image of the stereotypical fast food company. It bills itself as an ‘ethical grocer delivering delicious food direct from local farmers’ and specialises in organic produce.

If it is organic, it must be ‘healthy’, right? Not according to the Nutrient Profiling Model. Farmdrop’s wholesome advertisement showing a family admiring their latest delivery was rejected by TfL because it shows butter and bacon. Butter is high in saturated fat and calories. Bacon is high in saturated fat, calories and salt. Ergo, they are what disingenuous health campaigners describe as ‘junk food’.

If you think this is ludicrous, I don’t disagree, but rules is rules. I would have more sympathy for the people at Farmdrop if they hadn’t been enthusiasts for the ban right up until the moment they realised that it wasn’t just their competitors who were going to be clobbered.

In fact, they still support the ban. Like the party member screaming loyalty to Comrade Stalin as he is dragged off to the gulag, they assume that there must have been some mistake. In a charmingly bewildered blog post, Farmdrop say that ‘the ban is coming from the right place’ but that the ‘handling has been clumsy’. They ‘fully support the Mayor of London’s decision to prohibit junk food advertising on the transport network’ but are ‘concerned about how it’s being applied’.

Alas, they are not victims of an administrative error by an over-zealous jobsworth. The law is being applied as it was written, with HFSS food forbidden and non-HFSS food allowed. What is the alternative? There has been talk of TfL offering exemptions from the ban if the food in question is “not generally consumed by children” or if there are “exceptional grounds”. Neither seems to apply in this case, and if the authorities started making ad hoc exceptions on the basis of common sense, the whole house of cards would soon fall apart.

Farmdrop have their own definition of junk food, describing it as ‘calorific foods with little or no nutritional value’, but this only underlines how difficult it is to come to an objective judgement. If a food has no nutritional value, it is not food. Tellingly, they add: ‘We all know which foods we mean here.’ And so we do. We mean burgers that don’t come in a Rye Burger Bun topped with seeds (£1.75 for two). We mean mass-produced chocolate bars from Nestlé, not Belgian Dark Chocolate Tiffin (£3.50). What a shock it must be to discover that the authorities think that Organic Wyfe of Bath Cheese is just as fattening as the cheese on a Domino’s pizza and that Organic Dry Cured Streaky Bacon clogs the arteries just as much as the bacon served in a bap in a greasy spoon caff.

I said months ago that the public has been sold a pig in a poke by campaigners who talk about banning junk food advertising. The fact that a company like Farmdrop, which is in the food industry and regularly advertises on the tube, had no idea about the true scope of the law shows how far the wool has been pulled over our eyes. If a bland advertisement for ordinary food by a self-consciously virtuous business can fall foul of the law, anything can.

The chickens are coming home to roost. In the meantime, Londoners should reflect on the fact that they now live in a city where a photos of butter, raisins and ham are considered dangerous.

  • Myth Buster

    Khan has banned ad images on the tube of thin, fetching women as fat shaming. In his world, should not fat shaming be encouraged?

    London has duly elected a mayor who imposes Sharia law. Bacon and scantily clad females are indeed offensive to those belonging to grooming gangs.

    • gnostic

      People who travel regularly on the tube or train get exercise and are generally not obese. When I visit areas where there is car dependency the proportion of chubsters is noticeably much higher.

  • Jean-Pierre Le Pan

    I was surprised to read on a highly respected site that hypoglycemia can be addressed quickly by drinking a Pepsi or Coke. Does Jamie Oliver or Mike Rayner know this? God must be wrong in this case, eh Mr Rayner?

  • Fraser Bailey

    A story that is both hilarious and terrifying. But there will be a great deal more progressive terror to come, and not much more hilarity.

  • George

    Public health experts in the field of nutrition are currently the biggest threat to public health that there is. Not excluding anti-vaxxers.

  • While I am overwhelmingly sympathetic to this article’s view (and Mr Snowdon’s views in general), I disagree that there is no such thing as junk food? Ever seen the product called ‘Cheetos’? I was at the vet’s with my dog a while back and a woman with a dog the same breed as mine (poor thing) told her toddler: ‘Don’t give doggies people-food’. I saw what she had in her hand: a bag of Cheetos. ‘People-food’! Who is she kidding? The toddler, I suppose. That abominable chemical concoction is devoid of anything a human being wants or needs except calories.

  • tracy

    But knife crime is something that the Mayor can’t do anything about but telling ordinary people what they can and can’t eat and messing in the minutiae of law abiding citizens lives is something he can really get stuck into.
    Just one more shining example of the political class of this country

  • Tom Fox

    This is typical of the actions of that worm Khan.

    His ludicrous broad brush approach to air pollution now charges riders of highly efficient small motorcycles such as the marvellous, quiet Honda CG125 which achieves consistent 125mpg fuel economy the same charge as a gas guzzling Humer that does 15mpg. The little Honda doesn’t smoke like a two stroke and is caught because all petrol engines made before 2007 are charged under the ULEZ. It makes no sense.