Health lobby accuses Ofcom of ‘bias’ in junk-food debate

Sustain, the health lobby group, has slammed broadcast regulator Ofcom for being biased towards the food and advertising industry in the debate about advertising “junk food” to children.

The group hit out after Ofcom published research that shows the public do support restrictions on advertising some food products to children, but are against a total ban.

Sustain campaign co-ordinator Richard Watts, who represents a number of health and children’s groups as part of an organisation known as the Childrens Food Bill, says that it welcomes the results but is disappointed that the watchdog did not research views on the option of a 9pm watershed. He says: “There is clear bias to a chosen outcome and they have faced howls of opposition on the choice not to research the watershed, but Ofcom fears it might be as popular as other research has shown.”

Watts, on behalf of the Children’s Food Bill, has also released a letter from Ofcom in which the watchdog suggests that it will include the 9pm watershed in its research.

The letter, which is a response to clarification of the three packages for advertising regulation that Ofcom released in March, says that Ofcom has carried out “stress testing”, which refers to considering how many ads would be moved to a later time slot if a 9pm ban was introduced. Watts claims there is no evidence that this has been researched with the public.

He adds: “Such behaviour is sadly typical of the way in which Ofcom has conducted itself during this whole episode.”

Options put forward by the regulator include: the introduction of timing restrictions only on foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar; timing restrictions on all food and drink products; or volume-based restrictions. A so-called fourth “option” was also included, whereby commercial broadcasters were invited to submit their own proposals.

The research was carried out by Opinion Leader Research and comprised a series of workshops with adults and children aged between eight and 15.

Ofcom’s final ruling, expected this autumn, is likely to be one of the first made by the regulator under Ed Richards, who took over as chief executive last week.

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