Labelling guidelines sting ready meals, sandwiches

By Rod Addy contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Traffic light

The new guidance precedes EU Food Information Regulation requirements
The new guidance precedes EU Food Information Regulation requirements
Ready meal and sandwich firms are reeling after today’s publication of government front of pack (FoP) food labelling guidelines, which champion tough criteria for salt in foods.

The scheme combines a previous system employing the traffic light colours green, amber and red to denote rising levels of recommended daily intakes of the nutrients with percentage Reference Intake figures.

That would mean manufacturers supplying Tesco and Morrisons will face the biggest packaging changes. That’s because both adopted a Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) approach with older thresholds, rejecting colours.

Sandwich and ready meal processors had already worked hard with government on slashing salt levels to avoid red designations, which some claim will deter consumers from buying items.

However, the Department of Health (DH) recommendations, which conform to levels proposed in March, reduce salt thresholds, pushing many already reformulated products back into the red zone.

According to the latest guidance, products containing 1.8g or more of salt per portion qualify for red traffic lights, whereas previously the recommended level was 2.4g.

The publication of the guidelines has quashed hopes by some for a last minute reversal. While it is voluntary, the scheme is led by the top five grocery retailers, which have all committed to it, and some manufacturers that don’t promptly switch to the system fear delisting.

‘Big impact on salt’

One industry insider said: “This is going to have a big impact on salt. There are a number of products in the ready meals aisle that will have gone from amber to red. We were upset by this. A lot had moved from red to amber and now they are going to have to move back to red.”

As products move from amber to red, some processors fear consumers will believe they have become unhealthier.

However, Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, deputy director of food policy at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which, together with the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has worked extensively to steer the DH guidance, told “We are asking the DH to help communicate to consumers that it’s not the amount of salt that’s changed in products; it’s the criteria.”

In addition, the scheme advocates flagging up total sugar content in products rather than added sugar, as previously suggested, putting those making sugary foods in the spotlight. However, it seems likely this will mean products previously coded red may now become amber as the threshold between the two climbs from 12.5g per 100g to 22.5g per 100g.

Dr Susan Jebb, head of diet and medical health at the Medical Research Council and co-chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network, stressed the scheme parallelled EU Food Information Regulations effective from 2016.

Consequently, while currently voluntary, similar requirements would shortly become mandatory, she said.

Although she did not believe consumers would go as far as boycotting manufacturers that did not adopt the guidance, she said: “I would love that to happen, but that’s probably over-optimistic.

“What’s probably more realistic is if they have found traffic light labelling helpful, and if companies making their favourite products are not declaring it ​[their commitment], they might ask them why not.”


The new criteria for FoP labelling will require some changes for suppliers to all retailers, depending on whether they previously subscribed to approaches listing percentages of nutrients, traffic lights or hybrid schemes.

The FDF, which represents UK food and drink manufacturers, is understood to have been left in a quandary about the recommendations, with some members supporting them and some not.

Many manufacturers not backing the scheme, including Unilever, Coca-Cola and United Biscuits and Cadbury (Kraft), as global suppliers, claim it does not allow for requirements for products outside Europe.

“Each company has many factors to consider and weigh up – in order to make the appropriate balance for their business between the global, European and UK contexts and in the cost/ benefit equation,” said the FDF in a statement.

“In addition, the question whether in certain categories we really do help consumers to make a different choice, or we can drive reformulation, by using colour-coding (something which we know the governments took seriously in their deliberations) may weigh in the balance.

“Now that the UK governments’ recommended scheme has been published our members will be considering these factors and the costs involved (particularly for our small and medium sized enterprise members) as they move towards a decision on whether and when to adopt the scheme.”

A link to the DH guidance paper can be found here​.

More on the labelling scheme is available here​.

Related topics: Health and nutritional ingredients

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