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Traffic light food labelling needs a green light

A traffic light

The European Parliament has taken its first vote on food labelling. What’s needed is a combination of labelling that includes the traffic light scheme – so why have they left it out?

So, the first votes are in. It’s yes to country of origin labelling on meat and no to a traffic light scheme; both issues we’ve been busily campaigning for years. Although this was only a first step in the lengthy European legislation process, the final outcome will affect us all as it will have to be translated into UK law.

Better labelling begins here

Let’s start with the good. Our research shows that eight in 10 people think it’s important the country of origin is labelled on meat and poultry, yet the information currently provided is patchy, and often misleading.

Food labels only have to state the country in which it underwent the last ‘substantial change’. So sausages made in a British factory can be labelled as ‘made in the UK’ even if they were made from imported meat. New legislation will change all that. MEPs want to extend country-of-origin labelling to cover all meat and poultry as well as some other products. This will tell you exactly where ingredients are from as well as where the final product is made, giving shoppers much more knowledge when selecting their food.

What’s more, meat products have long been bulked out with proteins, water and starches. The second great win for us is that these added ingredients will now need to be prominently declared on food labels.

Currently, meat products in supermarkets do have to tell you about added ingredients like pork gelatine, but manufacturers can choose where to position the text and it often gets lost. Now, information about all meat and fish species in animal products must appear in the same field of view as the name of the food. Result.

We’ll still fight for traffic lights

We’re left deflated that legislation stops short of introducing traffic light schemes. These show red lights for high levels of salt, fat and sugar, with amber and green for lower amounts.

Food manufacturers claim that this is unnecessary and are in favour of percentage-based Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA). But our Senior Which? Advocacy Advisor, Mette Kahlin, disagrees, basing her conclusions on the most comprehensive research by the Food Standards Agency. She says the scheme that would work best for consumers includes a combination of traffic lights colours, the words ‘high, medium or low’ and GDAs.

“It’s frustrating and disappointing that MEPs have chosen to listen to industry instead of going with what independent evidence says is best for people,” she says. “There is generally a high level of understanding of front of packet (FOP) labels, even among those who don’t tend to use them.”

She says shoppers who use traffic light labels value them and use them, particularly if they are comparing different products, if they have a health concern like high blood pressure or diabetes, or if they’re watching their weight.

“If traffic lights aren’t recognised in the next round of European voting we’ll all continue to be confused by what we’re consuming.”

Tom Ritchie says:
4 July 2010

Some supermarkets have supported traffic light labels up to a point. Others, like Tesco have refused to use them.

They who refuse to use them claim they do so because they perceive a deep desire among consumers to study food labels instore in depth to get detailed % and weight data for the unhealthy elements in their basket. This flies in the face of commonsense – most shoppers simply want to get into the store, get their food and get out again as quickly as possible.

That’s why traffic lights work – they are quick and easy to see.

As a diabetic, there are two things I need to know. What percentage of sugar is there in the product, and what is the total weight of sugar in the pack? Traffic lights are of no value to me, nor a percentage of my daily recommended intake. All of the emphasis on 'healthy' food is concentrated on the fat content. There are some 'light/healthy' versions of muesli that contain 17% sugar!

Have you ever looked at the suggested portion sizes that appear on those "Guideline Daily Amount" labels that stores such as Tesco use? They are ridiculously small, which makes the percentages based on them meaningless, and as most people do not weigh their portions anyway, they have no idea how unrealistic they are.

Jenny – spot on with regard to portion sizes and percentage GDAs, this is why industry favours them rather than traffic light colours as well. Traffic lights compare per 100g, so they’re more objective, and also weight according to things like added sugars. A few months ago for instance we looked at Muesli in the magazine. if you go by %GDAs Frosties has less than half the sugar found in M&S Luxury Fruit and Nut muesli, but when you compare per 100g Frosties actually has more sugar – and it’s mostly added. You might eat a larger portion of muesli, you might not, but if you’re taking a quick glance at the packaging while in the supermarket you could easily think Frosties is the better choice for watching sugar.

The research was clear, consumers want traffic lights, ‘high, medium, low’ AND %GDAs, but MEPs voted against it.

Surely, if you know how much of your daily ration of fat/sugar/salt etc each product contains, it only takes a glance to buy an indulgence and back off on the next product, thereby balancing everything in the shopping basket. High, medium and low are vague terms. Can I buy three highs and stay within limits? Numbers actually tell you something. Morrison’s blue labels are clearer to read than most, but colour code if you must so long as it’s possible to do the maths. That and a bit of common sense is all that’s needed. Most food is now labelled. I don’t see a problem waiting to be solved any more.

Just a short post script, perhaps to end this dying thread. Thinking about the groceries we buy, most of the staples are label free anyway. The main shop is for milk (coloured tops) bread, (some have some haven’t), fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, fish, rice, flour, tea, coffee and fats/cheese (they are going to be high in fat aren’t they? Some more than others.) That really just leaves biscuits, cakes, crisps, cereals, confectionary, convenience foods and fizzy drinks to worry about. So half the shopping can be done without bothering about labels and the rest are products that we know to be ‘full of wickedness’ and we can calculate how much wickedness we have from the percentages on the labels. Job done. The problem is that some are not as lucky as others and have to buy the cheapest. Cheap, healthy food takes more preparation. Some are so busy that convenience foods form the basis of their daily intake. Some unfortunates buy what they like and don’t bother about nutrition, that’s an education problem not a labelling one. Children’s lunch boxes can, all too easily, be the source of absolute rubbish. Again that’s education and parental discipline not labels. If you are going to campaign, it should be on a broader front than traffic lights.