Industry nutrition labels clash with government plans
revamp its nutrition labels, yet the country's food industry is on
rocky ground by entrenching its support for guideline daily amounts
against the government's wishes, argues Chris Mercer.
Nestlé will print guideline daily amounts (GDA) for calories and fat alongside per serving nutritional information across its whole UK product portfolio, including confectionery, breakfast cereals, coffee and pasta.
The new packs, set to appear in April, will also include calories per serving on their front and back.
The GDAs for calorie and fat intake, as endorsed by the Institute for Grocery Distribution, have been around for some time though the food industry has recently given more publicity to the concept in light of Britain's obesity crisis and government's plans for labelling reform.
For example, Kellogg has just announced plans to print more comprehensive guideline daily amounts on its packs, including sugar, salt and saturated fat.
However, neither Nestlé nor Kellogg has received support from the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) for their moves, highlighting a growing rift between the FSA and many food producers on the issue of nutrition labelling formats.
The FSA, which is hoping to adopt its own labelling recommendations later this year, warned in a statement that too many different systems from different producers could confuse consumers.
The guideline daily amount of 100g for total sugars, to be used by Kellogg, already differs from the FSA's advice that consumers should avoid products containing more than 10g of sugar per 100g.
Mike O'Neill, senior policy advisor at the National Consumer Council (NCC), said the problem was that companies could take nutrition guidelines from a range of different medical sources so as to emphasise certain ingredients over others.
He said the NCC was "full-square behind the FSA" on the watchdog's research into a new signposting method, such as traffic light labelling, using nutritional profiling.
Both the NCC and FSA have also given the GDA concept itself a cool reception. The FSA published research last November that claimed consumers preferred a multiple traffic light design, depicting high, medium or low levels of key nutrients, to GDA per portion. GDA was only kept as an option due to industry lobbying late last year.
An FSA spokesperson said that the agency firmly believed its own system would be better and more comprehensive than the alternatives and this would put pressure on companies to follow suit in their search for a publicly responsible image.
The FSA has said it is keen to encourage voluntary adoption of its system but legislation has not been ruled out. And O'Neill said the NCC "would support the FSA if they wanted to move in that direction".
The FSA will formally consult the food industry over labelling in May, though it is clear some producers are backing themselves into a potentially dangerous position.
Both the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and the Institute of Grocery Distribution have already publicly backed GDA as the best method of allowing consumers to put products in the context of their daily diet. Martin Paterson, FDF deputy director-general, said the FDF was encouraging its members to provide GDAs on packs alongside full nutritional information and salt equivalence.
Both groups also claim to have public support for using GDAs. The grocery institute claimed that 72 per cent of consumers were familiar with GDAs and 34 per cent used them regularly.
The problem is that the grocery institute GDA system is not comprehensive enough and only officially encompasses fat and calories. If this system is to work then it would at least have to include concrete recommendations for salt and sugar intake: Kellogg has attempted to do this using other medical guidelines yet Nestlé has not, saying it will only base its new labels on official grocery institute figures.
Any FSA system would almost certainly include salt and sugar, both accused of playing a large role in Britain's obesity problems.
Both the FSA and NCC also believe in the need for a consistent, nationwide labelling system to tackle what is a nationwide health issue. The government watchdog has pursued labelling reform strongly over the last year and food producers and retailers should be careful not to underestimate its determination.