“Traffic-light” food labeling in the UK

Photo by ijclark via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

New health information will be coming to the front of some packaged food items in UK grocery stores. As reported in The Guardian,

Called a “hybrid system” by the Department of Health, it will combine colour coding, guideline daily amounts – which research has shown many consumers find baffling – and the words high, medium or low to describe certain ingredients, though the exact form has not yet been finalised.

The aim is to make it much easier for consumers to quickly tell the fat, salt, sugar, saturated-fat and calorie content of particular foods from the colour used. Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl, which had opposed traffic lights, have now agreed to introduce them in some form.

Health campaigners welcomed the move. “We are delighted that the government has finally agreed to recommend front-of-pack traffic-light labelling,” said Charlie Powell, director of the Children’s Food Campaign. “You won’t have to be a maths genius any more to work out which is the healthier product to buy.

As The Telegraph reports,

Although the system is voluntary, the Department of Health (DH) has carried out a three-month consultation with retailers, manufacturers and “other interested parties” on what the consistent, clear front of pack label should look like.

Currently, supermarkets use their own systems, each displaying the information with different visuals, colour and content. The DH said the current approach makes it hard for consumers to compare food.

The plan has been in the works for a long time and faced opposition from some sectors of the food industry, as the BBC reported back in July:

In 2006, with obesity levels rising in Britain, several ideas for labelling were examined by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

One was guideline daily amounts (GDAs) and the other was a traffic-light system – a postage-stamp sized sticker that used a colour code to denote the percentage of a person’s recommended daily allowance contained in each product – red for high, amber for medium and green for low.

The results of consumer tests were clear, according to Richard Ayre, who sat on the board of the FSA at the time. “They preferred traffic lights.” So did the health lobbying organisations, who saw the scheme as a major step in the fight against heart disease and obesity.

After weighting up the options, the FSA made clear recommendations that traffic lights should be adopted.

But many of the big players in the food industry were opposed to being told what to put on their packaging – especially something as simple as a colour chart, with a damning red sticker.

Resistance to the new voluntary labeling hasn’t ended. The Daily Mail reports that some “Farmers, dairy companies and meat manufacturers have hit out at a Government-backed traffic light food labelling system, saying it will demonise their products.”

Other key industry players are also raising objections—not surprisingly, since the labeling draws attention to things like fat, salt, and sugar—as the Financial Times reports [registration required to access article]:

Nestlé, which owns brands including Kit Kat chocolate bars and Cheerios breakfast cereal, said it did not intend to include traffic light colour coding and “high”, “medium” and “low” descriptions for fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calorie content on its packaging….

“We do not support the traffic lights system because it focuses only on negative aspects of nutrients and does not offer sufficient factual information,” said Nestlé….

Kellogg’s, the cereal maker, also said it would not introduce the system, citing doubts about colour-coded labelling.

Follow the links above for further details.


One comment

  1. zazzman

    Of course they aren’t happy about this labeling system. It would be awkward to have a box of Fruit Loops with red stop light next to “A nutritious part of a balanced breakfast.”

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