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Traffic light labelling must not be de-railed

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.

Tackling obesity

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


I suspected that something was going wrong when packets without traffic light labelling continued to appear on supermarket shelves. I’m sure that some companies don’t want to own up to the fact that their products don’t look very healthy choices.

Of course, what should be happening is that traffic light labelling should be rolled out across the EU countries.


I would be interested to know how many people actually use , understand or care about the traffic light codes. However the survey would need to well constructed to avoid any bias.

My guess is those that eat the most badly also care the least, and those who eat wisely probably would not bebuying those products anyway. Do I welcom traffic lights on all products – not really. Because as with all things it will mission creep to everything we can possibly eat or drink so that looking in the larder will become a a guilt trip.

If it is purely on manufactured meals and on certain drinks I think it supportable.

Jenny says:
26 October 2014

I am not overweight and like both salt and cheese. It is the totality of the diet that is important and the traffic light labels are only marginally useful in this. Also I do not trust the government not to use the traffic light categories as a basis to apply VAT on the grounds that it is in our own best interests. I doubt very much that these labels will have any effect on the obesity epidemic. Much better to reintroduce home economics lessons into schools.


It may be useful when comparing two meals or foods in order to make a choice but I see little use otherwise.
Of course butter is going to be red for fat and sugar etc red for sugar …………..


I don’t find the coloured blobs to be very useful. I always read the entire fat/salt/etc box.


Incidentally the system is based on the average womens requirements. So provided you are the average women at 5’3″ and 65kgs ……..

So whilst it is an indicator it is open to moderation on what your size is, your type of work, age, and your metabolism. I regard it as a case of spurious accuracy drilling to fractions of grammes of fat etc.

I am in favour of highlighting excess sugars and excess saturated fats but I think that somehow the system arrived at has achieved too many figures which are based on a particular premise and have made it more complicated than it should be. Many people are just phobic about figures. Just showing how many heaped sugars are in a meal would be hugely more immediate and sugar is probably the most dangerous of all the ingredients.


The figures were there before. What the traffic light labelling does is to grade foods are low medium or high in certain components that may be harmful if consumed in excess.


The traffic light scheme does not appear to have the overwhelming support of Which? Conversationalists. I am an expert on the sugar content of most breakfast cereals but have to resort to the magnifying glass to see the nutritional information on the panels on some packs. I complained to Waitrose about the size of the font used in the large panel and after several email inquiries they told me it would be changed in a few months. About six months later the font size was still the same so I stopped buying their cereal, They also displayed the information for the portion size before the per 100g, I would be happy with a standard system where the per 100g details are shown first and the font size no smaller than newspaper print as I can read them without spectacles. I now buy my cereal in either Tesco or Aldi and buy the remainder of my shopping at the same time. I rarely shop in Waitrose and I now spend less on my weekly shop.

Clear labelling must be a priority as many of us will still wish to see the exact values.