Supermarkets should follow Coke’s lead in shunning new Gov’t labelling system

This week all the major supermarkets signed up to the Government’s new “traffic light” food labelling scheme. Conspicuous in their absence from the voluntary initiative were Coca-Cola, Mondelez, United Biscuits, Unilever, Kellogg and Dairy Crest – to name but a few. Without backing from the UK’s biggest food and drink manufacturers, retailers should take their next steps to introducing the new system cautiously.

Lara O'Reilly

The Department of Health says the new consistent front of pack labelling 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 found they can become “bewildered” by the array of nutrition labels on food. 

The system combines both traffic light colour coding and nutritional information to display how much fat, salt, sugar and calories are in products. These will be presented as “Reference Intakes”, replacing “Guideline Daily Amounts” (GDA).

All the major supermarkets and some of the big food manufacturers – such as PepsiCo, Mars and Nestle – have lent their weight to the initiative.

Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King says the Reference Intake scheme is “a once in a lifetime opportunity” to help consumers make healthier purchases and called on others to commit to the scheme.

But the fact that the biggest food and drink manufacturers in the UK – their products representing 40 per cent of total food sales – 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 (Guideline Daily Amounts) 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 – which will be costly for food manufacturers and retailers alike – is unlikely to get tills ringing more often and could even lead to more consumer confusion. 

If the majority of branded food and drink products supermarkets sell continue to carry GDA, it begs the question whether there is really any need to invest in the costly process of introducing Reference Intakes across own-brand products. Not only will packaging need to be redesigned, but there will need to be – at the very least – in-store marketing investment to explain to consumers what on earth Reference Intake actually refers to in the first place.

As the Government’s own research states: consistent labelling makes it easier for consumers to make healthy choices. All the more reason to stick with the current GDA system.

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