The recent decision by the European Commission to launch infraction proceedings against the UK for its traffic light labelling scheme is disappointing. The scheme is vital to making informed choices.
The Department of Health went to great lengths to ensure that the scheme was compliant with the criteria for national voluntary schemes set out in the EU Food Information Regulations. It is supported by robust consumer research.
The food industry has really got behind the scheme. Retailers previously committed to other traffic light formats or other forms of front of pack labelling compromised so that consumers could have consistency wherever they shop. A broad spectrum of companies agreed to use it, including all of the retailers and several leading manufacturers, with Coca Cola most recently joining the club. About two thirds of products will soon carry the scheme and it is becoming more visible in supermarkets every day.
The initiation of the proceedings, following complaints by some other Member States, illustrates how short-term trade interests are all too often put ahead of longer term public health ones. Two thirds of people are already overweight or obese in the UK so it is essential that we tackle the issue of halting obesity rates. Apart from the human cost, our economy and health service will not be able to afford the long-term costs if rates aren’t halted.
EU Member States have made numerous policy declarations about the importance of tackling obesity, most recently in the World Health Organisation’s European Food and Nutrition Action Plan for 2015-20 adopted last month. They have also recognised that a range of measures are needed, including user-friendly, interpretative front of pack nutrition labelling.
Diet surveys repeatedly show that many people eat too much fat, sugar and salt.
This is why Which? campaigned long and hard for a label which people can understand at a glance and give them the nutritional information that helps them make an informed choice.
Fat, sugar and salt
Primarily aimed at processed foods, where the fat, sugar and salt content is not always obvious, the scheme that was agreed and launched last year shows people whether levels of these nutrients are high, medium or low using red, amber and green colour coding. It is supported by additional information on how much a portion contributes to the Reference Intake (RI) for the nutrient, expressed as a percentage.
Some producers have claimed the scheme is a barrier to trade and is an attack on imported and traditional products, rather than on unhealthy diets.
We don’t agree. The traffic light scheme is voluntary and appears on products produced in the UK as well as from other countries. It does not discourage consumers from making judgements about foods that are better quality or more traditionally produced – it just tells them exactly what is in the products that they are buying in a clear and upfront way rather than on the back of pack. The UK has two months to respond to the criticisms and defend the scheme. It must do so vigorously and we all need to support it.
This piece first appeared on The Grocer.