Last updated: May 2013
Green light for traffic light food labelling
Some food manufacturers provide information on the energy value of their products and 6 other components: total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt. These are expressed per 100 g or per 100 ml of product and displayed as a panel on the side or back of a pack.
This type of labelling is currently optional, but the EU has agreed that by December 2016 it will be made compulsory for packaged food in Europe.
Most supermarkets’ own-brands and many manufacturers additionally use front-of-pack labels which have a variety of graphics and information to show how much salt, fat, saturated fat, sugar and calories are in the food we are buying. These front-of-pack labels are not compulsory.
But the problem is that different manufacturers present different information in different ways. It’s confusing and unclear, and it makes comparing two products very difficult. One clear, uniform system across the industry is needed.
Traffic light labelling
Since 2004, consumer campaign groups and health charities have pushed for traffic light labelling, which shows consumers at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Traffic light colours also tend to lead to reduced saturated fat, sugar and salt in products as food manufacturers try to reduce the numbers of red lights on their product labels.
Many big food manufacturers, including Kellogg, Kraft, Mars, Nestlé and PepsiCo, have refused to use traffic light labelling. They don’t want their products covered with red ‘danger’ labels. The big breakfast cereal makers, and particularly Kellogg, have long opposed the traffic lights scheme. In 2006, senior regulatory officials described the cereal makers’ lobbying campaign as “the most ferocious we have ever experienced”.(1) Furthermore, a €1 billion campaign by food industry lobbyists prevented the EU from making traffic lights compulsory as part of the nutrition labelling law coming in in December 2016.
Instead, the food industry promotes a Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) label, which shows the number of calories and grammes of sugars, fat, saturates and salt per portion of food, which may be per slice or per 30g serving or whatever. It also expresses these quantities as a percentage of your GDA. The GDA labels are usually based on the average requirements of an adult woman, even for products marketed to children. Where a value is given for children, an average value for girls and boys aged 5-10 is given, which is no use for the under fives. See www.gdalabel.org.uk/gda for the different values.
Which? has said: “The % GDA approach offers some level of interpretation, but relies on accurate use of portion sizes as well as consumers’ ability to understand percentages and keep track of the relative contribution of different foods that they are choosing.”(2)
New hybrid traffics lights and GDA label
After consultation with manufacturers, health charities and the public, the government is now proposing a uniform, hybrid system which includes traffic lights and GDA percentages. With that information we can see at a glance which foods may be high in salt, fat and sugar, and how much the food we buy contributes towards our recommended daily amounts. The system is scheduled to be introduced by summer 2013 but it will be entirely voluntary.
The supermarkets are all now on-board with the scheme. Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, The Co-operative, Asda and Sainsbury’s were early adopters of traffic light food labelling systems. Tesco was vociferously against traffic lights, but Tesco, Morrisons, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland have all now followed suit.
The food manufacturers, however, remain resistant. The two biggest cereal makers, Kelloggs and Nestlé, have said they will not use the system and will stick with just GDA labels.
“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.(3)
Farmers, dairy companies and meat manufacturers are also against the scheme, claiming it will demonise their products and shoppers will stop buying cheese, milk and sausages.
But proponents such as the British Heart Foundation, say: “People will still drink milk, enjoy bangers and mash and lay out the cheese board because traffic light labels are about giving shoppers the opportunity to make informed choices, not taking choice away.”
Charlie Powell, Director of the Children’s Food Campaign said: “Given this announcement, Government should name and shame food companies delaying using traffic light colours on their processed food and drink products. It has been clear for at least three years that this is a good way to help people choose healthier products, and companies now have no excuse not to commit to traffic light labelling.”