FSA tweaks traffic lights to include GDAs, wording

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Traffic light scheme, Traffic light, United kingdom, Food standards agency

The UK’s Food Standards Agency is changing tack over traffic light labels, its preferred scheme for much of the last decade, due to EU regulatory debates and new evidence on consumer preferences.

The best way to indicate a food or beverage product’s nutritional value on the front of pack has been the subject of great debate. A new mandatory EU scheme is being worked out in Brussels, but there are already a number of well established schemes in different member states.

The FSA has been promoting its traffic light scheme since 2006. It is intended to allow consumers to see at a glace whether a food contains a lot of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, by attributing colours to different levels of these nutrients.

The government agency is now suggesting that a new system be adopted on a voluntary basis, which would combine three different ways of presenting information on the front of packs: traffic light colours, text stating high, medium or low content of the various nutrients, and percentage of guidance daily amounts (GDAs).

It acknowledges that some companies are already using this approach, whereas others are using one or two of the elements.

Diverging views

The different systems used across the UK food sector has come about as the traffic light scheme was criticised by some for being too simplistic and for demonsing certain foods. Under the leadership of the umbrella trade association the CIAA, many big players have rolled out GDAs across their product ranges. Others, like retailer Asda, started using colour-coded GDAs.

Last May research conducted by the independent Project Management Panel concluded that consumers were confused by the plethora of different schemes in use, and that the best understood used the words high, medium and low as well as colour-coding and GDAs.

The FSA’s new position was published in a paper which will be up for discussion at the board meeting on 10 March. If the board supports its recommendations, they will go forward as advice for UK health ministers.

It envisages a flexible approach to adopting the new system, with perhaps two out of the tree elements used during a lead-in period.

Tim Smith, Food Standards Agency Chief Executive, said: “This approach is all about what consumers have told us they want. Independent research and citizens' forums told us that people were confused and wanted a single approach developed by government. We also appreciate and understand that food businesses are starting from different positions. Our proposals respond to what consumers want but also provide some flexibility for business.”

The FSA’s board paper is available at this link. http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/board/fsa100307.pdf

EU view

The new EU-wide regulation has been a long time in the works: the proposal was published in January 2008, and debate over the details has been fierce. The proposal favours a system not dissimilar to the GDA scheme.

Parliamentary rapporteur Renate Sommer has maintained that mandatory national schemes should not co-exist alongside the new EU scheme. If this view influences the final law the UK would have no choice but to lighten the emphasis on traffic lights, at best keeping the scheme voluntary.

Related topics: Labelling, Policy, Food labelling

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