Food labelling scheme draws bouquets and brickbats

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Public health, Food, Nutrition

The new universal food labelling scheme drew a mixed reception this week
The new universal food labelling scheme drew a mixed reception this week
The launch of a new universal, front-of-pack food labelling scheme drew both bouquets and brickbats from the industry this week. Here, we provide a flavour – in quotes – of the mixed reception, which greeted the new scheme designed to help consumers make more informed choices about the health and nutritional value of food and drink products.

Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium:“This is great news for consumers. A consistent scheme across all the major supermarkets means wherever we shop we will see the same front-of-pack labelling. That will help improve understanding of the label and make healthier choices easier.”

Diane Abbott, shadow public health minister:“It is welcome news the government is joining Labour and health groups’ campaign for this to happen. Any companies that refuse to do their bit must be named and shamed. But there is also a danger that this step forward may evaporate once the spotlight has moved on, because the government is so reliant on these voluntary agreements.”

Industry insider: “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.”

Anna Soubry, public health minister​: “People will be able to use the colours to understand the levels of nutrients in the food they are eating. The labels are not designed to demonise foods with lots of reds but to have people consider what they are eating and make sure it’s part of a balanced diet. People will also, at a glance, be able to compare the same kinds of foods and see if there’s a healthier option — for example, if they are buying a ready meal.

“Obesity and poor diet cost the NHS billions of pounds every year. Making small changes to people’s diet can have a big impact to their health and could stop people getting serious illnesses — such as heart disease — later in life.”

Richard Lloyd,Which? executive director:“For years Which? has been calling for food companies to use traffic light labels so we welcome this big step forward towards making it easier for consumers to make healthy choices. With levels of obesity and diet-related disease on the increase, it’s vitally important that people know what is in their food, and this labelling scheme will encourage food companies to do more to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat in popular products.”

Professor Simon Capewell, Liverpool University​: “It may save a few hundred lives but government action to introduce a 20% tax on sugary drinks, remove industrial transfats from food and insist on mandatory salt removal would save more than 20,000 lives a year. We need a government that is genuinely committed to public health rather than protecting their friends in the food industry.”

Catherine Higgs, food policy manager at the Co-operative​: “It takes time​ [to introduce a universal labelling system] and we should be celebrating those retailers and those manufacturers who are committed to it.I’m sure customers of those manufacturers​ [that haven't signed up to the scheme: eg, Cadbury/Kraft, Coca-Cola and United Biscuits] will express their views.”

Simon Gillespie, chief executive British Heart Foundation: “This is undeniably a first-class scheme that will make it easier for shoppers to scan the shelves and make more informed choices about what’s going in their trolley. High levels of diet-related chronic diseases in the UK, including heart disease, mean it’s essential we have clear and consistent food labelling so people can make healthy choices. We’re delighted all the major supermarkets are committed to the scheme and look forward to more food manufacturers signing up.”

Charlie Powell, director of the Children’s Food Campaign:“There are now no excuses — all food companies should follow suit and the government should name and shame any which drag their feet.”

Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, deputy director of food policy at the British Retail Consortium​: “We are asking the Department of Health to help communicate to consumers that it’s not the amount of salt that’s changed in products; it’s the criteria.”

Dr Susan Jebb, head of diet and medical health at the Medical Research Council and co-chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network:“I would love that to happen​ [consumers to boycott manufacturers that did not adopt the guidance]. 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.”

Melanie Leech, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director general​: “As part of our commitment to make a positive contribution to improving public health, FDF members have voluntarily provided front of pack (FoP) nutrition information for many years and have implemented FoP nutrition labelling consistently across Europe. We are proud to have led the way.

“We did it because we wanted to be transparent when it comes to nutrition information on pack, and to provide consumers with clear, factual labels intended to help them put the food they eat in the context of their overall diet. We recognise clear information is a powerful tool for helping consumers make better-informed choices and improving their overall food literacy.”

Prof Owen Warnock from the University of East Anglia: “It is interesting that although all the big supermarket chains and some household name food manufacturers have announced that they will adopt the new scheme for the products sold under their names, many well-known brands have not done so. The refusniks have several options – they are not obliged to have any front of pack nutrition labelling, or they can use the EU Food Information Regulation scheme, which allows only the front of pack information to state only the energy content and quantity in weight of key nutrients – with or without percentages of reference intakes, so long as colour coding is not used. Alternatively, it would be possible for such businesses to undertake a public consultation and then introduce yet another alternative form of expression under the EU regulation. I think the latter option is highly unlikely.”

Coca-Cola Great Britain spokeswoman​: “We fully support providing consumers with factual, clear and transparent nutrition information.  This is why in 2007 we led the introduction of GDA [Guideline Daily Amounts] labelling across Europe. In the UK, we already display all four nutrients plus calories on our cans and bottles.  The system we use in the UK complies with the preferred standard for consistent voluntary GDA labelling across EU member states, and studies show that consumers widely recognise and understand GDAs throughout Europe.  After careful consideration, we will not adopt the new voluntary system of front-of-pack nutrition labelling. We will continue with the pan European scheme that is tried and tested in many countries.”

United Biscuits spokeswoman​: “UB is fully committed to providing its consumers with unambiguous nutritional information to help them enjoy our products as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.  Our products have clear Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) icons on the front of pack showing calories, sugar, fat, saturates and salt per biscuit or per portion as appropriate and on the reverse of each pack is more detailed nutritional information per biscuit and per 100g. As consumers normally eat our products by the biscuit we believe that providing clear information per biscuit is the clearest way to give consumers the information they need. The colour scheme is based on 100g, which is the same as seven digestives. Very few people would eat that many at a time. We believe that consumers want information based on what they are actually eating. We will study the full details of the government’s scheme now that it has been published.  We also understand that the Government is still conducting research into the hybrid labelling system.” 

Unilever spokeswoman​: “We are disappointed that the Department of Health has not taken the opportunity to develop a scheme that differentiates between food groups and therefore support consumer behaviour change. The scheme does not allow consumers to clearly identify healthier products within each food group and make informed choices. For instance, butter and spreads would both be labelled red for saturated fat, despite the fact that spreads contain four times less saturated fat than butter. We will continue to work hard to continuously improve our food products and information to make it easier for consumers to make the step to a high healthier diet.”

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