Some have been more hostile to the UK’s move than others – but strongly in the ‘anti’ camp is FoodDrinkEurope, the trade body that represents the interests of the European industry. It says the UK government’s decision to back a label that includes both GDAs (guideline daily amounts) and traffic lights could ‘fragment the EU Internal Market’, as the upcoming Food Information for Consumers (FIC) regulation will mandate GDAs but not traffic lights.
A group of Italian associations agrees, adding that focusing on single dietary nutrients is too simplistic.
Others have been more restrained, like German industry body BLL, which doesn’t back colour codes but said it would watch the UK situation with interest.
The fuss is misplaced; most UK consumers find traffic lights useful and, if combined with EU-backed GDAs, they are allowed under FIC regulation, which permits different forms of expression across the bloc.
Fragmentation? I don’t think so. The EU also allows expression in different languages. Providing on-pack information in Spanish might be preferred in Spain, but in France, consumers might not find it too useful. That’s fine. If consumers in your country prefer monochrome GDAs, then that’s fine too.
However, a growing body of research suggests that GDAs combined with traffic light colour coding does indeed help consumers make healthier choices. And isn’t that the point of front-of-pack nutrition labelling?
Making healthy easy
Frankly, I suspect that none of these labels is going to be uniquely responsible for whittling European waistlines, but they may help make the healthier choice the easier choice. For certain sectors of industry, consumers might use traffic lights to make quick comparisons between products – and as such, for some product categories, colour coding might help spur reformulation.
There are other parts of industry that will find it hard to avoid red traffic lights, but if all products in a category are similar, that shouldn’t be a problem for any particular company.
Consumers don’t necessarily look at a product (like cheese for instance), see that it has a red label for salt and fat, and put it back in the chiller. Instead, these labels might help people choose products that make up a healthier overall diet – picking up the cheese along with some green-labelled foods.
Food manufacturers and health policy experts alike need to realise that consumers looking at food labels are probably already taking a whole-diet approach – and that's what GDAs are for too.