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FSA traffic lights system signals labelling dispute

By Anthony Fletcher , 17-Nov-2005

The FSA's backing of a 'multiple traffic light' (MTL) labelling initiative comes a day after the UK food industry promised a voluntary guideline on daily amounts (GDA).

The traffic light scheme, designed to provide at-a-glance information on whether a food is high, medium or low in total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, follows research undertaken in June which sought to identify which of four possible front of pack schemes would help most people identify healthier food options when shopping.

The MTL performed best for the majority of consumers at showing the key nutritional characteristics of a food simply and easily, according to the FSA.

A third of respondents from lower socio-economic and minority ethnic groups were unable to effectively use GDAs, while a simple traffic light was felt to be too basic.

"Consumers have told us that they would like to make healthier choices but find the current information confusing," said Food Standards Agency (FSA) Chair Deirdre Hutton.

"After carrying out rigorous and comprehensive research, we now have the makings of a system that will make it quicker and easier for people to do so."

However, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) believes that new guideline daily amounts (GDAs) on food packaging is the best means of empowering consumers with vital nutritional knowledge, and challenges the FSA's belief that a traffic light system is the most widely supported labelling system among consumers.

Food manufacturers and retailers, along with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), issued a voluntary code of GDAs earlier this week in a clear attempt to pre-empt the FSA's traffic light announcement.

"We are pleased that single traffic lights have been thrown out by consumers and that the majority of people chose the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) format," said Food and Drink Federation deputy director general Martin Paterson. "This is reinforced by yesterday's Institute of Grocery Distribution's findings, which back GDAs.

"Any traffic light-based scheme runs the risk of scaring or confusing consumers - a label containing any red stop sign is likely to be viewed negatively. Therefore, the opportunity to develop GDAs, which give factual information enabling consumers to plan their daily diet, should not be missed."

The British Retail Consortium was a little more ambivalent in its response yesterday. "The BRC still feels that information for consumers is only one part of the equation," said director general Kevin Hawkins.

"Government needs to also ensure all consumers are educated about healthy lifestyles; including clear advice about the contribution that all foods make to a healthy diet as well as the importance of physical activity."

The ongoing debate over nutritional labelling in the UK is being carried out against a backdrop of growing concern over health.

Figures released in March by the International Obesity Task Force (IOFT) show that the number of overweight European kids is still rising by 400,000 a year.

The British Medical Association, representing about three quarters of UK doctors, said that if current trends continue, at least one fifth of boys and one third of girls in Britain would be obese by 2020. Diseases related to obesity are currently costing the NHS over £500 million a year and shortening lives.

Equipping consumers with nutritional knowledge has therefore become a key component of the battle to beat rising obesity rates.

Many sectors of the food industry have introduced their own signposting schemes in order to counter accusations that the food industry has contributed to this ongoing epidemic. Number one UK retailer Tesco, for example, recently said it would label hundreds of its own label packs with the amount of salt, fat, saturated fat, sugar and calories in a serving of each product in grams, while the British arm of Nestlé recently revamped its nutrition labels, printing GDAs for calories and fat alongside per serving nutritional information across its whole UK product portfolio.

The FSA however maintains that a variety of diverse labelling schemes could lead to confusion, and is fully behind the implementation of a multiple traffic light scheme. Opposition from sections of the food industry however is likely to be swift and strong.

"Education and information for consumers is the key: we should not shy away from this course of action for the sake of a seemingly easy 'quick fix', like a traffic light scheme," said Paterson.

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