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Food industry rejects traffic light labels

18-Nov-2004

Traffic light labelling would be a primitive, unworkable and pointless way of highlighting unhealthy foods according to the UK food industry, speaking in reaction to the newly published government policy paper on public health. Chris Mercer reports.

The paper, released earlier this week, called for clearer labelling of sugar, fat and salt content on many foods by the middle of next year, as well as the curtailment of junk food adverts during children's viewing times in an attempt to curb Britain's growing obesity problem.

One option being considered by the government is so-called 'traffic light' labelling whereby unhealthy foods would be identified with a red mark, nutritious yet high fat foods, such as cheese, with an orange mark and healthy choices with green.

But the scheme has met criticism from the food industry. "This is not something we believe would work. Traffic light labelling just categorises products into good or bad and doesn't put them into context," said Christine Fisk of the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF).

"A more useful system would be printing guideline daily amounts on packs. This would make more sense to consumers. If you just put a dot on a product it doesn't tell you where that product would sit in a diet," she said, adding that the FDF would continue working with the government.

In Parliament, Conservative MP Andrew Lansley pounced on traffic light labelling as a "half-baked" idea and questioned whether it was workable.

"If a wholemeal bread roll is low in sugar, moderate in fats and high in salt, would it merit a green, amber or red light?" said Lansley, calling on health secretary John Reid to clarify how seriously the government was considering the system.

Many UK bakers, including industry giants British Bakeries and Allied Bakeries, are working to reduce salt in their products yet government guidelines still class a number of bread brands, such as Hovis Farmhouse and Kingsmill, as high in salt.

In May this year, Food Standards Agency chair Sir John Krebs said the authority was looking into traffic light labelling as a way of highlighting low, medium and high fat, sugar or salt content.

The FSA is reported to be considering a pilot scheme in the next few months, but the adoption of the system would be voluntary. However, both Sainsbury and Tesco supermarkets are working on a traffic light-style code to flag up healthier products.

Rival chain, the Co-op, already labels salt, fat and calorie content in its products as high, medium or low.

Health secretary Reid refused to commit himself on the issue of traffic light labelling: "We are asking the FSA, together with the industry, to work out a simplified form of indicating the nutritional value of food. We need to ensure that people have the information they require to make properly informed choices."

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