Food manufacturers that are serious about improving public health should sign up to the hybrid nutrition labelling scheme proposed by the government and backed by retailers, say public health experts.
Dr Mike Rayner, director of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the University of Oxford, said the hybrid system's most important element was the "traffic light" colour coding: "Traffic light labelling is more interpretive. %GDAs [guideline daily amounts] aren't particularly important because most people can't understand them."
But in November, FoodDrink Europe and a group of 12 major manufacturers reaffirmed their commitment to a system based on monochrome GDAs, which was first submitted in 2006. The group of 12 includes Coca-Cola, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Kellogg, Mondelz, Mars, Metro, Nestlé, Orangina-Schweppes, Pepsico and Unilever.
"GDAs are the most widely used voluntary labelling tool. Several thousand brands sold in the EU carry monochrome GDA labels, representing more than 25% of the market, rising to 63% in the UK," said Dr Christiaan Prins, deputy head for Unilever European external affairs.
In contrast, UK retailers support the hybrid proposal. Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: "The focus should be what is right for customers. Our members feel there is merit in a common system that, from research, is helping customers make healthier choices."
Rayner thought manufacturers were more concerned than retailers about the potential impact of traffic lights on sales, because they typically have a smaller portfolio of products: "Retailers have a range of products on their shelves and some will be greenish and some will be reddish. Their sales are not going to be affected overall.
"Manufacturers are naturally going to be more cautious, but I think they've been too afraid of red lights. Labelling has a limited impact on consumer choices there are lots of other factors at work. Everyone knows cakes are going to be mainly red."
There are signs that the UK food industry may be prepared to engage in the process to firm up the hybrid proposals provided the evidence is there to support it. "The Food and Drink Federation [FDF] is currently engaged in these discussions to better understand the most up-to-date and robust consumer research," said Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the FDF.