The announcement by several major food manufacturers that they are going ahead with their own front-of-pack signpost labelling system "suggests this a cynical move to derail the Food Standards Agencys steady progress towards an industry-wide agreement on front-of-pack food labelling," according to Ed Mayo, chief executive of the National Consumer Council (NCC).
Five of the UK's largest food manufacturers announced today that they would place labels on the front of all their products, including Walkers crisps, Dairylea and Kit Kat.
But the labels will not be colour-coded to tell consumers at a glance whether the products fall under government definitions of high, medium or low in salt, fat or sugar.
The FSA, which has conducted rigorous research with 2,600 consumers across the UK to test out four types of signpost labelling, concluded that the multiple traffic light scheme performed best for the majority of consumers at showing the key nutritional characteristics of a food simply and easily. It was hoped that this initiative would be endorsed by the food industry.
"The decision by these food companies to go their own way is irresponsible," said Mayo. "It will cause confusion for consumers.
"People need the entire food industry - manufacturers and retailers - to adopt a single, consistent labelling scheme to help make healthy choices, easy choices."
UK consumer watchdog Which? has also come out in support of the FSAs proposed multiple traffic light labelling. Sue Davies, chief policy adviser to Which? said that as consultation on sign-post labelling closes, it was vital that a consistent labelling format is used across all brands to help consumers identify which products are high in fat, sugar and salt and compare between them.
"It's of no use to consumers if a branded product such as Kellogg's cornflakes, for example, has a different labelling scheme to the pack of own-label cornflakes sitting next to them on the shelf," she said.
However, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has backed food manufacturers promising to put Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) information on the front of their products. It arguers that this gives consumers at-a-glance information and should form the basis for improved nutrition information across the industry.
"There is clear agreement across industry that GDAs are the best way to provide consumers with useful information about their food," said FDF director general Melanie Leech.
"This consensus enables companies to develop consistent, complementary approaches to providing on-pack information."
The FDF claims that 33billion worth of products will have full nutrition information on pack by the end of 2006 and almost two thirds will provide Guideline Daily Amounts on their packs as a ready reckoner for consumers. The recently launched Be Treatwise scheme highlights GDAs in confectionery products, says the federation.
"Industry is taking the initiative, applying its deep understanding of consumers to help provide solutions," said Leech.
But consumer groups are angry that the food industry does not appear to be backing the FSA strategy of introducing a uniform system of labelling.
"We are concerned that the majority of food manufacturers and retailers do not appear to want to support a single, consistent system of signposting," said Davies. "Instead of focusing on the best approach to make healthy choices easier, they are developing a plethora of different systems based on various formats, criteria, symbols and use of colours which will only add to confusion."
Indeed, Which? said it was particularly concerned at the way manufacturers and retailers were introducing their own simplified labelling schemes in advance of publication of the FSAs final model.
"We strongly support the introduction of a single government backed scheme which we hope can be used across all brands," it said.
"We agree that it is sensible to phase in a new labelling scheme. However, we would ultimately like to see the scheme applied across all pre-packed foods."
The closure of the consultation period represents the second stage of a wide-ranging public consultation to find a labelling scheme that works for consumers. A decision on the final scheme is expected in the next few months while a review of the nutrition labelling directive is expected in 2007.