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Traffic light labelling key to tackling obesity, claims UK consumer advocates

By Jane Byrne , 14-Oct-2011
Last updated on 14-Oct-2011 at 15:06 GMT2011-10-14T15:06:25Z

UK consumer advocates Which? are calling for the UK government to explore the provisions allowed under the new EU regulation on food information to make sure front of pack traffic light labelling is used on all food products.

The group termed the UK government’s new obesity strategy, Call to Action, ‘woefully inadequate’ and claims the report is calling on people to cut down the calories they eat, but that it is not giving them the tools to do so.

The obesity policy report issued a calorie reduction challenge calling on the food and drink industry to play a key role – alongside government and others – in reducing the population's calorie intake by five billion calories a day. Almost a quarter of the UK population is now obese.

Speaking to FoodNavigator.com this morning, Sue Davies, chief policy advisor at Which? said that while ultimately it is about individual responsibility the government must show leadership on this and press industry to provide clear and simple labelling.

Labelling regulation

She notes that Article 35 of the Food Information Regulation (FIR) allows for member states to look at additional forms of expression and presentation beyond the mandatory nutrition declaration.

According to this FIR stipulation, the energy value and the amount of nutrients may be given by other forms of expression and/or presented using graphical forms or symbols. These options are open to individual member states, continued Davies, and the provision is geared towards the ‘traffic light’ system and the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA).

The provision in the new regulation stresses though that no such system can be used unless it is based on "sound and scientifically valid consumer research”.

Consumer understanding

And Davies argues that the evidence to support consumer comprehension of traffic light system for nutritional labelling is there.

“While food manufacturers, in the main are not, half of the retailers in the UK are using traffic light labelling including Sainsbury’s and Asda. And our research along with independent studies testing the various food information labelling schemes indicate that consumers across the board - and not just the better educated ones - find the traffic light approach the easiest to understand.”

In July the House of Lords in the UK voiced its support for the implementation of a traffic light labelling on food and drink products , and urged stronger government policies to change consumer behaviour.

Behaviour change

The House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee’s report, Behaviour Change, outlined that a range of measures – including some regulatory measures – would be needed to change behaviour in a way that will make a real difference to society’s biggest problems including obesity.

According to the report, current voluntary agreements with businesses in relation to public health have major failings, and are not a proportionate response to the scale of the problem of obesity.

Clear and defined roles, argues FDF

But FDF Director of Communications Terry Jones said the Call to Action report’s clear focus and defined roles for a wide range of players including government, individuals, businesses and the health service at both a national and local level recognises that this is everybody’s business.

“Food manufacturers have a great track record of positive contributions to improving public health including clear labelling and reformulation of products, to help consumers make healthy choices,” he continued.

Jones added that the industry is committed to continuing to work in partnership with the Department of Health and others through the Public Health Responsibility Deal “to play our part in supporting people to achieve an appropriate calorie intake and a healthy lifestyle.”

On an average grams per 100g basis, it is clear that there have been significant reductions in the relative nutrient density of the products sold by our members between 2005 and today – from 4.5% on energy density (the earlier calorie research we commissioned) to 9% on salt,” said the trade body, citing January 2011 published data from Kantar WorldPanel Research for the FDF.

The UK goverment's report Call to Action can be read here .

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