Anna Glayzer, CI’s programme officer for food safety and nutrition, asks: Do front-of-pack developments in the UK signal a global revival for the fortunes of traffic light labelling?
The new scheme will be a hybrid of the ‘traffic light’ system put forward by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2006, and the ‘Guideline Daily Amounts’ (GDA) system endorsed by opponents of the traffic lights system.
Under the traffic light system, fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar values are depicted using red for high, amber for moderate and green for low.
GDAs give the quantity of each nutrient as a percentage of a recommended daily amount. The new hybrid scheme is due to come into use next year.
Discussions on the exact design are ongoing. Consumer groups and public health campaigners fear that some retailers will also use the discussions to push for the FSA traffic light criteria to be weakened.
To put developments of the last few weeks into perspective, nutrition labelling was first floated in the UK in 1984, when the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) recommended that all manufactured foods should be clearly marked with a simple labelling code warning the public when the fat content is high, and that the contents of manufactured foods be clearly labelled with percentage-by-weight figures for fat, salts and sugars.
The announcement of the new hybrid scheme marked the end of strong opposition to traffic lights by major players in the UK food system.
An announcement by Tesco in August was quickly followed by similar announcements by Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons. Other UK food retailers Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, and the Co-op already use the traffic light system with the original FSA criteria.
Sadly, manufacturers such as Nestle and Kellogg’s, along with the dairy industry, have blasted the new hybrid scheme, and continue to refuse to introduce colour coding, even alongside GDAs.
Nearly 30 years on from the COMA recommendations, UK consumers still do not have one simple labelling code on all manufactured foods.
Consumers International wrote to Tesco, Aldi and Lidl to ask whether there is any intention to roll out the new labelling scheme to their stores outside the UK.
Tesco told us: “Our customers in the UK have told us that they like the GDA approach to labelling and favour it over colour coding, which does not provide the necessary detail they need to make an informed choice when used alone.
However, they would prefer a combination of the two as this gives them simple, at-a-glance guidance alongside accurate and meaningful information.
With this in mind, we have announced our support for a hybrid food labelling system in the UK which will combine meaningful, detailed information from GDAs with at-a-glance colour coding.
“We will be introducing this new system as we make the changes to nutritional information on the front and back of pack required by the European Food Information Regulation by December 2014.
We will review how this labelling might be applied across other countries in due course.”
Lidl responded: “Declarations and content of Lidl own-brand products vary across Europe. With the decision to introduce the traffic light colour coding on Lidl own products in the UK, we followed the market developments. Looking towards other European countries, we currently have no such plans.”
Aldi did not respond to our enquiry.
Traffic light labelling is favoured by public health advocates across Europe, the USA and the Asia Pacific region.
The European Food Information Regulation agreed last year (referred to by Tesco), stopped short of introducing mandatory traffic light labelling following a €1 billion campaign by food industry lobbyists.
The regulation as it was passed requires a mandatory declaration on the label of energy, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt – by 13 December 2016. There is no requirement for any mandatory FOP scheme.
The Australian government also rejected traffic light labelling at the end of 2011, and is due to agree a new FOP system by the end of 2012.
Last year, Thailand became the first country to introduce mandatory FOP nutrition labels for five snack categories, but opted for GDAs. South Korea was the first country to press ahead with recommendations for voluntary traffic light labels on children’s food starting 1 January 2011.
The move in the UK does not, it would seem, signal a global wave of traffic light labelling. It is however, a significant move, particularly if the FSA traffic light criteria remain as they are. CI and its members will be watching developments with interest.