The food industry has been rocked by the news that plans to conform to the seven point "health manifesto" could be in breach of competition laws. The news further demonstrates the sensitivity surrounding responsible food marketing and will no doubt frustrate numerous parties who must work together to find a prompt solution.  

Food and drink companies have been warned by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that plans to combat obesity by reducing the size of portions, lowering sugar and salt levels and scrapping advertising aimed at children may actually breach competition laws.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has already published a seven-point "health manifesto" to address the key health and ethical food advertising concerns. It claimed "food manufacturers, working with the rest of the food chain, the advertising industry and other partners, will co-ordinate their efforts." However, in a leaked letter from the OFT to the FDF, concerns are raised that food companies could get together to make agreements which might subsequently reduce consumer choice or value for money.

According to the Financial Times, the FDF showed its provisional plan to regulators in July and was warned in August that it could breach the law. The OFT said that if manufacturers avoided coordinating their efforts, there would be no problem.

The watchdog's position will both concern and frustrate the government, which is worried about the rising incidence of obesity and has been imposing guidelines regarding food content. It is because of this that many industry players are actively undertaking moves to cut salt and sugar levels in products, for example by stopping production of 'super-sized' chocolate bars.

Many of the major food companies that have committed to the "manifesto for food and health" will also be frustrated at hitting another stumbling block in their attempts to regain the trust of consumers. Moreover, the added complexity that has emerged due to the OFT's supposed intervention highlights that responsible food marketing is an extremely complex issue and one that requires collaboration on a macro level from both the government and the industry. The government should perhaps reflect on whether the wellbeing of consumers can be subjugated to the interests of competition in the food sector.

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