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Europeans challenge UK traffic light scheme

By Nicholas Robinson , 09-Jul-2014
Last updated on 09-Jul-2014 at 11:24 GMT

Traffic light labelling infringes the internal market, claims Italy
Traffic light labelling infringes the internal market, claims Italy

The European Commission (EC) is investigating the UK's voluntary front-of-pack traffic light nutrition labelling scheme, following complaints from Member States (MS), which argued it influenced consumer choice and was an infringement of the internal market.

A large number of MS, including Spain and Greece, and led by Italy, have accused the scheme of having a potentially negative effect on sales of traditional and regional foods, such as hams and cheeses.

A decision on whether or not to start infringement proceedings against the UK would be announced in the next few weeks, said a spokesman for Antonio Tajani, vice president of the EC.

However, Glenis Willmott, health spokeswoman for UK Labour MEPs defended the UK’s traffic light labelling system.

‘Strongly condemn’

“I strongly condemn attempts to stop the traffic light scheme through a spurious legal case,” said Willmott. “The EU legislation is clear that individual countries can implement voluntary labelling schemes, which is exactly what is happening in the UK.”

If the UK were found to be in breach of the internal market, it would have the opportunity to respond with its defence, said Tajani’s spokesman. However, if it failed to comply with the EC’s final ruling, the matter would go to the European Court of Justice, he added. “Then if the UK refuses to comply with the outcome, there could be a heavy fine,” he warned.

Earlier this year, Italy, supported by Slovakia, Luxembourg, Spain, Cyprus, Portugal, Slovenia, France, Romania and Greece, accused the traffic light scheme of “clearly influencing consumer choice”.

The Italians said consumers would be dissuaded from buying red-labelled products, such as prosciutto and Parmesan cheese, as they would be perceived to be bad for their health.

Stopped them purchasing

They drew on a recent survey from the UK’s Co-operative, which showed that, when asked, 40% of women and 30% of men said red traffic lights had stopped them from purchasing a product.

However, the UK’s Public Health Responsibility Deal’s High Level Steering Group said: “[The UK’s] nutrition labelling scheme does not discriminate against any food, category of food or particular countries of origin. It simply provides consistent and comparable information about the amounts of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a food product.”

Consumers were not told what or what not to buy, but were helped in making informed choices in relation to their whole diet by using the traffic light labels, the group added.

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