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Published in The Food Magazine 28th September 2009
Back in 2003, The Food Commission launched a campaign, Chuck Snacks off the Checkout!, after complaints from members of our Parents Jury that supermarkets were encouraging kids to pester their parents to buy unhealthy foods as they went to pay for their shopping. Many big chains promised to do better, but now, six years on, a survey for The Food Magazine has found that many of Britain’s supermarket super-powers are still stocking tills with high fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) foods for impulse buying.

The Food Magazine surveyed the checkouts in summer 2009 in 28 stores from major supermarket chains Waitrose (3 shops), Somerfield (4 shops), Co-op (2 shops), Iceland (2 shops), Tesco (7 shops), Sainsbury’s (6 shops), and Marks and Spencer (4 shops), in locations around London and Oxford. Only Waitrose checkout areas were entirely free of HFSS food and drink. Somerfield and Co-op stores (prior to their merger), Marks and Spencer and Iceland all had confectionery of various types within easy reach and sight of children.

Tesco and Sainsbury’s visits showed that the checkout areas in larger stores were free of such promotions, but in the newer, smaller stores (Tesco Express and Metro & Sainsbury’s Local) such displays abounded, and all included a variety of confectionary, and in some instances soft drinks and salty, bagged snacks. Such items were often found distributed on both sides of checkout queues – as people waited to pay, they walked through what amount to ‘tunnels’ of less healthy foods.

Where our survey found these foods and drinks, we found a lot of them – all such checkouts had at least ten different items, with some checkout areas having more than 50. To top it off, many of the tills we saw also had booze alongside where customers queued.

Top products on sale

The survey of products found that foods and drinks which would be banned from being advertised during television programmes of particular interest to children and young people were sold near checkouts surveyed. Nestlé and Cadbury chocolate bars, along with packets of Haribo were the most commonly displayed food products. Coca-Cola was the most commonly found drink, and Walker’s crisp varieties were the most common bagged snack.

Store policies

The chains have a variety of policies about less healthy food promotion on checkouts. Waitrose told us these were discouraged, but could be left to the discretion of individual store managers. Tesco and Sainsbury’s told us these were now permitted. Iceland did not return our calls. Marks and Spencer has a policy of having one sweet free till in each store, but this was not clearly evident during survey visits. Somerfield (no policy) has now been taken over by the Co-op (policy says HFSS products should not be promoted); in any case, we found the Co-op stores visited in breech of their own guidelines.

Chuck snacks off the checkouts

The Food Commission would like all retailers to adopt firm policies for banning checkout promotions of HFSS foods – and we would like to see these policies enforced at all store locations. With the exception of Waitrose, our snapshot survey shows all stores have some way to go.