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Five-year public health campaign on building a healthier food environment

Posted On: 17 Jun 2024



(Published with the kind permission of Safefood)

‘Building a healthier food environment’: Safefood launches five-year public health campaign

New campaign marks a shift in strategy to tackle obesity and protect children’s health.

⦁ Snack foods encroach on new settings: Over 70 per cent say they see unhealthy foods for sale in non-food locations like hardware stores and bookshops.
⦁ Unhealthy food dominates: Eight of the top ten selling food brands are unhealthy, and over half of all promotional convenience store offerings are unhealthy.
⦁ Children bombarded with marketing: Nearly two-thirds of pre-schoolers recognise unhealthy food logos.
⦁ Disadvantaged communities are worse affected, with fewer healthy food options available.
⦁ One in five children in Ireland now living with either overweight or obesity, putting them at greater risk of diseases later in life including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and many cancers.
⦁ #TalkAboutFood: Irish adults encouraged to start a conversation to spark change.

A new five-year public health campaign to build a healthier food environment and protect children’s health has been launched today by the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Colm Burke, TD. The campaign from Safefood aims to raise awareness of the unhealthy food environment, how this is harmful to children’s health and why it needs to change.

Food related ill-health is now the biggest cause of preventable illness and death in the developed world, with one in five children in Ireland* either living with either overweight or obesity. People today don’t have less willpower, different appetites, or different biology than previous generations – but today’s food environment encourages us to eat unhealthily at nearly every turn.

Launching the campaign, Minister of State at the Department of Health with special responsibility for public health, wellbeing, and National Drugs Strategy, Colm Burke TD said: “This new public health campaign aims to protect the health and wellbeing of children by firstly prompting us all to think and talk about our food environment. Overweight and obesity pose an increasing challenge in Ireland with three in five adults and more than one in five children and young people living with overweight or obesity.

“Much has already been achieved in this area, including the introduction of a sugar tax, work on food reformulation and changing the food supply, reducing advertising of unhealthy food, and creating nutrition standards for education and healthcare. Now we must go further. This campaign recognises that all of us, especially young children, are being exposed to greater marketing and promotion of unhealthy food and beverages. By working together, we can build a more positive food environment that will support everyone to make healthier choices.”

What does the research say?

The food around us – what’s known as our ‘food environment’ – has radically changed from previous generations. This is illustrated by a broad range of research in this area; eight of the top ten selling food brands in Ireland are unhealthy foods and fizzy drinks¹; more than half (56%) of the foods on promotional offer in conveniences stores are unhealthy²; almost two in three (63%) pre-school children were able to match brand logos to product images of the top selling food products³; and a recent mapping study for Dublin City Council showed that the high number of takeaways in disadvantaged areas surpassed the number of takeaways in more affluent areas⁴.

Latest research⁵ from Safefood has found that eight in ten adults (82%) say they see special offers for unhealthy foods when going to their local shop. Additionally, seven in ten (71%) say they see unhealthy foods for sale in non-food locations like bookshops, hardware stores and leisure centres.

At present, one in five children in Ireland are living with either overweight or obesity which puts them at much greater risk of diseases later in life including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and many cancers. Children are also at risk of experiencing poor psychological and social effects during childhood due to weight stigmatisation. The cost of obesity impacts not only on the health and wellbeing of individuals but also on the economy. Last measured in 2017, the estimated lifetime cost of childhood overweight and obesity to the island’s economy⁶ was €7.2 billion euros.

What would a better food environment look like?

Dr Aileen McGloin, Director of Nutrition with Safefood, continued: “If we stop and look around at our own environment, we begin to see how much unhealthy food and drink surrounds us. Our campaign ads show how overwhelming this is from a child’s eye view. We’re bombarded with advertising and promotions for it. It’s there when paying for petrol or buying a tin of paint. It’s on never-ending price promotion. Expecting any of us to make a healthier choice is simply not possible when faced with this relentless sales push.

“We’re at an important moment in time and we know how our food environment is harmful to our health and our children’s health. We must ask ourselves – is this what we want? What would a better food environment look like? For too long we’ve let others decide. We all need to start that conversation with each other about what a better food environment could be like and start a momentum for change.”

A new approach to public health campaigning

Dr Gary A Kearney, Chief Executive, Safefood, continued: “This campaign marks a shift in public health campaigning on the island of Ireland and for the first time focuses on our potentially harmful food environment and why we need a healthier one. It is a move away from personal responsibility towards a broader societal response. For many years, many public health bodies have been encouraging people to eat healthily, but it is virtually impossible to do so within an environment that doesn’t support this. It is very difficult to make healthy food choices when faced with constant advertising and marketing, and the availability of cheap, unhealthy foods at every turn. Rates of overweight and obesity remain high, and a different and inclusive approach is now required for society.

“This campaign will be a key initiative for Safefood, working with our partners in public health, North and South. Over the next five years we will draw upon the latest and emerging research in this area and work with our many partners with a view to building a healthier food environment and protecting our children’s health.”

The new campaign was developed by Safefood working in consultation with public health stakeholders on the island. These included the two Departments of Health, North and South, the Public Health Agency, the Health Service Executive, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland.

As part of the campaign, Safefood will lead a Food Environment Forum which will comprise the lead health agencies involved in the policy and partnership work in this area and will steer a roadmap for the next five years. It is anticipated that the demand for change created by the campaign will help advance this work and expedite the changes needed to build a healthier food environment.

Pictured are Safefood Director of Nutrition Aileen McGloin, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Mike Nesbitt MLA and Junior Minister Aisling Reilly MLA, Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly TD and Safefood Chief Executive Officer Gary Kearney


Editor’s Notes

Research References
* The Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) in the Republic of Ireland – Findings from 2018 and 2019. 2020.

¹Checkout Magazine Top 100 Brands in Ireland survey (September 2023) Read The Latest Checkout Top 100 Brands 2023 Issue Online! | Checkout

²What’s on offer? The types of food and drink on price promotion in retail outlets in Ireland (Safefood 2019) What’s on offer – safefood research report

³Food Marketing to pre-school children (Safefood 2015) Food marketing to preschool children | safefood


⁵ A face-to-face survey by Ipsos B&A conducted in-home among a nationally representative sample of adults aged 15+ (Ireland) and 16+ (NI (Northern Ireland)). Fieldwork took place between the 1st of March and 1st April 2024. The total number of interviews achieved was 818 (516 Irl and 302 NI). Data was weighted to Census estimates at the analysis stage.

⁶ What are the estimated costs of childhood overweight and obesity on the island of Ireland? (Safefood 2017) Costs of childhood obesity on the island of Ireland | safefood

Food Marketing – The World Health Organization* (WHO) has stated that children continue to be exposed to powerful food marketing, which predominantly promotes foods high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, and/or sodium and uses a wide variety of marketing strategies that are likely to appeal to children. Food marketing has a harmful impact on children’s food choice and their dietary intake, affects their purchase requests to adults for marketed foods and influences the development of their norms about food consumption.

“Policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing: WHO guidelines; July 2023 Policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing: WHO guideline

Built Environment – Recent research by UCD (University College Dublin) and the FSAI (Food Safety Authority of Ireland) mapped the location of supermarkets in Dublin using socio-economic markers. This found that areas of lower deprivation had more than twice as many supermarkets (n=135) than areas of higher deprivation (n=50)

Foods on Promotion & Placement – Research by Safefood (2019) found that more than a third (35%) of all food and drinks on promotion in supermarkets were high in fat, sugar, and salt. This figure increased to 56.1% for food and drinks on promotion in convenience stores. Additional research by the FSAI (2023) found highly visible shelf space is more frequently allocated to unhealthy food while healthy food is more likely to end up in less prominent sections in three of the big supermarket chains which account for half the total market share.

Foods Eaten – Previous research** from Safefood has shown almost one quarter (1/4) of all children meals included foods and drinks high in fats, sugar, and salt, not recommended as part of a healthy diet. Afternoon and evening snacks included between 21% and 29% of foods high in fats sugar and salt, in Ireland (IE), and between 23% and 37% in Northern Ireland (NI)

*“Food portion sizes and the proportion of different food groups eaten by children on the island of Ireland. Safefood; May 2019