‘Mary Poppins Act’ needed to reduce sugar intake

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Will a spoonful of sugar make the regulatory medicine go down?
Will a spoonful of sugar make the regulatory medicine go down?

Related tags Traffic light labelling European union Food and drink federation

The UK will probably strengthen rules governing the front-of-pack nutrition labelling of food and drink packs – something it has been restricted from doing as part of the EU – rather than watering them down following the Brexit vote, a food labelling expert has claimed.

Traffic light labelling, for example, could be strengthened on the front of packs, said Stephen Pugh, course co-ordinator for Better Training, Safer Food at the European Commission and formerly head of the food labelling team at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It is even possible that spoons of sugar could be adopted on the front of packs as a graphical way of indicating to consumers the sugar content of products, added Pugh.

He was speaking yesterday (September 13) at a seminar in London on ‘Food labelling regulation – the future for UK policy’, organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum.

“In this country the retail market is with about 10 major retailers. All but one of those has an interest in the European market. And we have just had a very good regulation put in place and people are not going to want to change that,”​ remarked Pugh.

‘Food Information Regulation’

“The negotiations over the Food Information Regulation were extremely successful; we got just about everything we wanted. We didn’t really want to change it that much. So, overall, I don’t think the picture will change very much.”

However, Pugh added: “That said, there are areas where we can take our own particular path and that’s what we might like to do.

“We have traffic light labelling in the UK; we might want to expand that. And there have been some people pushing for spoonfuls of sugar ​[labels]; that would then become a possibility if we were outside the EU.”

The seminar was chaired by Labour MP Geraint Davies, who in October 2015 presented to Parliament a Private Member’s Bill on Sugar in Food and Drink. This proposed setting targets for the sugar content of food and drink. It also called for the sugar content of food and drink to be labelled in terms of the number of teaspoons of sugar on packaging as a consumer-friendly way of indicating the sugar content of the food or drink.

‘The Mary Poppins Act’

Davies described Pugh’s suggestions of potentially extending front-of-pack labelling in the UK post Brexit and his own parliamentary proposals as the “Mary Poppins Act”. ​It would be “the icing on the cake”​ of the regulation, rather than ripping it up, he added.

However, sugar teaspoon labelling on packs was dismissed by Morrisons’ company nutritionist Bryonie Hollaert who, speaking at the same event, said she didn’t believe this was the right way to proceed.

Hollaert, instead, repeated the call made by the British Retail Consortium for mandatory – rather than voluntary – reformulation targets to be set for reducing nutrient levels in high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) food and drink. Supermarkets have claimed this would provide a “level playing field”​ for all manufacturers, retailers and foodservice outlets.

Meanwhile, UK food and drink manufacturers, as represented by the Food and Drink Federation, are vehemently against mandatory targets, rather than voluntary ones, for reducing HFSS food and drink.

Still more to do

The FIR, which began being adopted into UK law in December 2014 as part of the EU’s Food Information for Consumers Regulation (No 1169/2011) (FIC), consolidated and standardised a raft of existing outdated EU food labelling legislation.

While most of the measures covered by FIC have been implemented, some aspects – such the labelling of food and drink sold over the internet and communication of allergy advice covering food sold loose and in foodservice outlets – were not working as well as they were intended, said David Pickering, trading standards manager at Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards Service, who also spoke at the event.

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