A bitter row is brewing between major food manufacturers and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) over how best to provide consumers with the information they crave.
Consumer group Which? has accused the industry of undermining proposals by the FSA and written to the chief executives of food giants including Danone, Kellogg, Nestlé, Kraft and PepsiCo asking them to reconsider. "Competing schemes will create more confusion for consumers," says Which? chief policy adviser Sue Davies.
Neville Rigby, director of the International Obesity Forum, comments: "Current discussion isn’t resolving or addressing the issue."
At this moment, consumers are the victims of the stand-off between the FSA and the food industry. And with every manufacturer that jumps on the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) bandwagon, the agency will appear still weaker.
Manufacturers prefer the GDA system, which indicates the amount as well as the percentage of the daily recommended level of calories, sugar, fat, saturates and salt contained in a product.
But the FSA does not think that GDA works effectively, instead preferring a traffic light system based on green, amber or red lights displaying at a glance whether foods contain low, medium or high amounts of salt, sugar, fat or saturated fat. On the basis of its research, based on a sample of 2,500 people, the FSA claims consumers find number-based systems complicated. "Our research tells us that for speed and absolute simplicity, the multiple traffic lights system wins out over the GDA," it says.
But despite the FSA’s likely recommendations, a breakaway group of some of the UK’s biggest food manufacturers joined forces last week to announce a common approach to on-pack labelling. Unilever, Danone, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestlé and PepsiCo committed to publishing GDA information onto the front of their products "to help consumers make informed choices about food quickly and easily". They have since been joined by Cadbury, Masterfoods and Campbell’s, illustrating the food industry’s scepticism towards the FSA’s proposal.
Referring to the traffic light system – viewed by critics as over-simplified, rigid and prescriptive – Martin Glenn, outgoing chief executive of PepsiCo UK & Ireland, says: "We know from our customers that they don’t want to be told what they can and can’t eat. They want easily accessible information to guide choice."
Further muddying the waters, supermarket chains have devised bespoke information systems for their own-label products. Tesco ditched a traffic light system, claiming it was confusing for the consumer, and adopted a GDA-style system. Sainsbury’s has also introduced a hybrid of the two, dubbed the "Wheel of Health".
This is worrying both for consumer, who requires consistency, and the FSA, which will appear toothless if it cannot bring together a food industry bent on ignoring its advice. The FSA only has the power to recommend guidelines and the UK Government cannot introduce binding law on the matter for fear of breaking single market rules. Enforceable regulation can come only at European level, but pan-European debate is static. The food fight may continue for some time.