Seven EU states oppose British traffic light labelling

By Liz Newmark, in Brussels

- Last updated on GMT

Sainsbury's uses traffic lights labelling to reflect the nutritional value of food
Sainsbury's uses traffic lights labelling to reflect the nutritional value of food

Related tags European union Beef Packaging equipment & materials Pork Poultry Processing and packaging Innovation

The European Commission should not accept the voluntary ‘traffic light’ food labelling system used in the UK, seven EU member states have argued. 

They have warned that most meat products would gain a ‘red’ label under the system, deterring sales, with traditional product manufacturers having little leeway to reformulate products to gain amber or green light labels. In the traffic light labelling system, ‘red’ means high, ‘amber’ medium, and ‘green’ denotes low levels of fat, sugar, salt and calories.

The governments of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain have joined forces to say in a document that this labelling system, “aimed at classifying food as more or less ‘healthy’ mainly by assigning a specific colour​”, did not respect the EU’s food information to consumers (FIC) regulation 1169/2011. Under that law, by 13 December 2016, food firms must provide nutrition information on their products.

It is ultimately up to the European Commission to decide whether traffic light labelling complies with the regulation’s requirements. And if it does, these countries would have to allow its use on the packaging of exports of UK-manufactured food products and face pressure to use it for their own meat exports to Britain.

‘Difficult to change’

Indeed, of key concern to these countries was that many traditionally-made products, could get a ‘red label’ under the British system. That would include products with EU Protected Designation of Origin, Protected Geographical Origin, and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed status, including some hams.

Because these designations require a strict adherence to certain production methods, it would be difficult to change formulations to gain an amber or green light label. Conversely, products that did not have protected designations “could freely be reformulated to get a ‘green label’, changing the content of fat, sugar or salt”​, noted the seven countries.

The Liaison Centre for the Meat Processing Industry in the European Union (CLITRAVI) agreed. It told that with traffic light labelling, 99% of meat products could gain a red label (although as only 60% of foods are covered by the system as it is voluntary, in practice it would be 50-60%).

It has warned of “a reduction of 20% in sales due to the red light​” and said data had shown 40% of women and 30% of men had stopped buying certain products in Britain because they carried a red label.

‘Pressure on’ business

CLITRAVI and the seven-country alliance have noted that the UK introduced traffic light labelling as “a voluntary agreement between the government and all interested parties​”. However, all major meat retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose, use the scheme, putting pressure on food manufacturers, particularly small firms and own-label product suppliers, to apply the colour labels.

In a comment made to an EU Council of Ministers meeting staged last week (14 March), UK officials disagreed. They said its traffic light system, introduced in June 2013 by the UK Food Standards Agency and welcomed by consumer and retail groups as a “clear and consistent system to make healthier choices easier​”, met the demands of the EU regulation.

A Commission official at the meeting acknowledged that the regulation did allow different standards to be used, adding that “a thorough review​” of its requirements was due by 2017.


The FIC regulation says that any additional labelling for foods must be objective, non-discriminatory, anti-competitive, based on sound and scientific research and not misleading – requirements that the seven countries claim traffic light labelling does not meet. “At the same time, we think it is an ineffective tool to promote a ‘healthy lifestyle’, which should be focused on a balanced diet rather than on the amount of a single food ingredient,​” argued the seven countries.

EU food and drink industry association FoodDrinkEurope communications director Florence Ranson stressed that mandatory traffic light labelling would not be allowed under the FIC regulation, but was not happy with optional national schemes, which “whatever they are – are potential obstacles to the [EU’s] single market​”.

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