Salt and labelling top consumer food concerns in UK
has helped these two issues replace BSE as the biggest food
concerns among an increasingly sceptical British public - warning
the food industry to stay on its toes, reports Chris Mercer.
The amount of salt in food is now UK consumers' top concern, with fat and sugar content also making the top five. And the number of people who said they were wary about the accuracy of nutrition labels rose from 34 per cent in 2002 to 44 per cent in 2004.
Meanwhile, those worried about BSE has fallen from 66 per cent in 2000 to 44 per cent last year, mimicking a growing confidence in the safety of raw beef, says the Food Standards Agency's fifth Consumer Attitudes survey.
The figures emphasise the impact on the public of the FSA's campaign to slash salt levels in consumers' diets and its continuing efforts to introduce a simple nutrition labelling system, such as traffic-light labelling, to highlight foods high in salt, fat or sugar.
And with a continuous flow of stories on these issues, including Britain's obesity crisis, in the national media, food firms should be more focused than ever on tackling these issues to present a responsible image to consumers.
This appears especially important for the bakery industry, which must also combat the legacy of the low-carb diet fad in Britain, despite the recent withdrawal of low-carb specialists Atkins Nutritionals from the UK.
FSA figures show there has been a year-on-year decrease in the proportion of people believing they should eat more carbohydrates, falling from 42 per cent in 2000 to 18 per cent in 2004.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said the FDF's members, which include most major players such as Kellogg, Kraft and RHM, had already "set out commitments including more informative labelling and improving product choice", in the food and health manifesto released last September.
At the time of launching the manifesto, Paterson said that "the whole food industry has already made great strides in reducing the amount of salt in a wide range of processed foods".
UK baker RHM, owner of the Hovis brand and Mr. Kipling cakes, said it had already cut salt in Hovis bread by 10 per cent. And major rival Allied Bakeries said it had also worked hard to reduce salt across its product portfolio, claiming a loaf of Kingsmill contained seven times less salt than the industry average.
Yet bad publicity for food companies and retailers continues to emerge. Just before Christmas, a National Consumer Council survey revealed that only two private label products out of 100 met government guidelines on salt content - aimed at bringing consumers' daily intake down to the recommended six grams.
More recently the whole food industry was publicly attacked by another consumer group, Which?, over nutrition labelling accuracy.
Which? claimed its study found that only seven per cent of 570 nutrients tested were present in exactly the amounts that product labels said, with 17 per cent outside the agreed margin of error set by Lacors, the local authorities' agency responsible for co-ordinating regulation.
Evidence from the FSA survey suggests Britons are also becoming increasingly interested in smaller ingredients in their food. Chemicals in food was the subject most mentioned by members of the public who phoned the FSA in 2004, whilst the number of calls relating to additives in food rose from just under a third to 42 per cent last year.
The publication of the Which? report, together with new FSA figures claiming consumer scepticism over food labels is increasing, means the food industry may need to prioritise labelling accuracy if it is to avoid further damage to consumer trust.
The FSA survey actually revealed that 10 per cent less consumers claimed to always check food labels in 2004 compared to 2003. It is unclear whether this is a direct result of rising scepticism about the information given, but of those who do check labels three quarters said they were most interested in nutritional information - a rise of 50 per cent on last year.
This statistic adds more support for the FSA's project to print a simplified, eye-catching labelling system on the front of packs.
Multinational firms Kellogg and Nestlé recently announced they would put more information on nutrition labels based on guideline daily amounts, but the move was criticised by the FSA on the basis that too many different systems may confuse consumers.
And the new-found scepticism about food firms' labelling information may increase the pressure on the food industry to adopt the eventual FSA system, in order to regain a responsible public image.