The DoH unveiled the consistent front of pack nutritional label initiative on 19 June, after more than a year’s worth of consultations with the public, health NGOs and the food and drink industry
The DoH says the system will make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices about the foods they eat, after research (in the European Journal of Public Health) showed they can end up “bewildered” by the different nutrition labels on food.
The new voluntary system combines both traffic light colour-coding and nutritional information to display how much fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories are in products. This will be presented as “Reference Intakes”, replacing “Guideline Daily Amounts” (GDA).
Businesses signed up to using the label – which include PepsiCo, Mars and Nestle, as well as all the major supermarkets – account for more than 60 per cent of the food sold in the UK.
Some companies, however, are concerned adopting the scheme could negatively affect their businesses.
Problems cited include the logistical difficulties and costs involved in pan-European manufacturers producing labelling purely for the UK, issues around certain natural products such as fruit juices and dairy foods being “demonised” with red light sugar or fat status and a general belief current nutritional labelling is already sufficient.
Both Coca-Cola and Cadbury-owner Mondelez will continue with the pan European GDA labelling, introduced to the UK in 2006.
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman says: “We fully support providing consumers with factual, clear and transparent nutrition information. The system we use in the UK complies with the preferred standard for consistent voluntary GDA labelling across EU member states, and studies show that consumers widely recognise and understand GDAs throughout Europe.”
A Mondelez International spokesman says “Mondelēz International has been providing UK consumers with clear nutritional information on the front of pack since 2006 – in fact we were a pioneer of the current GDA labelling scheme. We will continue to give consumers the information they need to make informed choices about the food they eat.”
A Dairy Crest spokeswoman says: ”We are concerned that the proposed traffic lights system fails to recognise the many health benefits of milk and dairy products within a varied and balanced diet.”
Melanie Leech, director general at the Food and Drink Federation, says widespread usage of consistent front of pack schemes will empower consumers to make appropriate choices, but each company has challenges to consider before adopting them.
She adds: “Each company has many factors to weigh in order to make the appropriate balance for their business between the global, European and UK contexts and in the cost/benefit equation. In addition, the question whether in certain categories we really do help consumers to make a different choice, or we can drive reformulation by using colour-coding may weigh in the balance.”
The fact that the biggest food and drink manufacturers in the UK are boycotting the newly proposed Government traffic light labelling initiative shows just how toothless voluntary regulation can be. Given their absence, one wonders whether the initiative will even make it on to shelves.
The costs involved for a pan-European company to completely change its printing processes, just for one of its many regions, cannot be overlooked and must have been principal among the reasons Coke, Mondelez et al chose to stick with the current GDA labelling scheme.
Those companies are, however, signed up to the 2011 Public Health Responsibility Deal and since then have made changes to the formulation of their products and marketing to encourage people to eat healthier foods.
Making such changes makes business sense in a world where consumers are increasingly worried about their health. Making changes to an already existing labelling system is unlikely to get tills ringing more often and could even lead to more consumer confusion to boot.