Mars Wrigley, Britvic, Mondelez International and PepsiCo are among the brands to have hit out at the government's short deadline for its consultation to ban all online ads for foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, the brands – which comprise more than 800 food and drink manufacturers – said that the timing is "frankly astonishing", pointing out that they are dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak and the upcoming end of the European Union transition period.
The government launched the consultation on 10 November and it closes on 22 December. It is part of its strategy to tackle obesity and is aimed at helping to protect children from developing long-term unhealthy eating habits.
The Department for Health and Social Care has based the proposals on research that shows that children are exposed to more than 15 billion ads for HFSS products online every year.
The brands' letter, which is backed by industry bodies IPA, Advertising Association and ISBA, called the measure to ban all online ads for HFSS foods "a disproportionate proposal with an impossibly short time period given for responses, given the level of technical detail sought".
#ICYMI The FDF alongside other representatives from the #foodanddrink industry wrote to the Prime Minister, @BorisJohnson, raising our concerns with the proposed advertising ban. Read the full letter ???? pic.twitter.com/VHbSM9vYHU— FDF CorporateAffairs (@FDFCorpAffairs) November 22, 2020
It added: "The sheer volume of critical work facing food companies in the next few weeks means that at this time we simply cannot give this consultation the resource it deserves and demands. Something will have to give.
"The timing of this consultation is frankly astonishing, especially as the government's stated ambition is to introduce these proposed advertising restrictions at the end of 2022.
"There is no reason to introduce this consultation and demand submission responses with such haste while effectively limiting our opportunity to respond, especially before the end of December."
The letter went on to say that the evidence behind the proposals lacks "detail and efficacy". It also said that advertisers use "sophisticated online tools" to target adult audiences and this has been demonstrated to the government "repeatedly".
"Why has the government chosen to disregard this?" the letter asked.
When the consultation was launched, industry trade associations warned that the measures are a "kick in the teeth" and will do "untold harm" to the industry at an "economically precarious time".
A DHSC spokesperson said: "The urgency of tackling obesity has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link to an increased risk from Covid-19.
"We are determined to tackle obesity across all ages and we have already taken significant action – cutting sugar from half of drinks on sale, funding exercise programmes in schools and working with councils to tackle child obesity locally.
"We have committed to restricting HFSS adverts on television before 9pm, but we also need to go further to address how children can be influenced online by adverts promoting unhealthy foods.
"We have launched a consultation to gather views from the public and industry stakeholders to understand the impact and challenges of introducing a total ban on the advertising of these products online."