This article is part of our special report Regulating consumers?.
A UK scheme that labels pre-packed food in red, amber or green according to their level of healthiness was rejected by Mediterranean countries at EU level but is slowly gaining momentum across Europe.
Traffic light food labels were first introduced in the UK with the aim of providing consumers with a clearer indication about the amount of salt, sugar or fat contained in the products they buy. They are red, amber or green based on the quantity of specific nutrients, allowing the consumer to quickly decide which product to choose.
“To make healthier choices look for foods which have more green and amber and very few red traffic lights,” Sainsbury’s says on its website, as well as recommending its own range of products with few, if any, red traffic lights.
The scheme entered into force in 2013 but is still voluntary at this stage and only applies to about a third of food sold in Britain. In September last year, local authorities urged the UK government to make the scheme universal, saying the current situation was confusing for consumers.
“The UK is leading the way with its traffic light scheme, which is already widely used and provides clear, at-a-glance information,” said Izzi Seccombe, chairwoman of the Local Government Association (LGA). “It is something many shoppers are familiar with and find helpful,” she told the BBC, calling for the scheme to become mandatory for all retailers.
Such schemes are controversial though. At EU level, a traffic light system for food labels was rejected in 2011 as part of negotiations on the food information to consumer regulation.
Southern European countries in particular voiced concerns about the UK traffic light system, claiming it would stigmatise the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in oil.
They complained that the scheme did not respect the EU’s regulation on food information for consumers and the Commission eventually launched an infringement procedure against the UK in 2014.
A European Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.com that the UK traffic light system had raised concerns from certain member states who believe it is too simplistic and stigmatises certain foods.
The governments of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain joined forces last year to denounce the UK scheme, and called on the Commission to scrap it. With mandatory traffic light labelling, 99% of meat products would be classified as “red”, according to industry sources cited by GlobalMeatNews.com.
“The infringement procedure is ongoing,” the EU spokesperson said.
EURACTIV understands that the Commission is currently assessing further information submitted by the food industry. But the idea seems to be gaining momentum.
France recently introduced a similar ‘Nutri-Score’ system which indicates the nutritional quality of a product via a colour scale ranging from Green (grade A) to red (grade E). The European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) praised France for the move.
In the private sector, six industry giants, including Coca-Cola and Nestlé, launched in March their own push to have UK-style traffic light labels in Europe.
Italy took up arms against the scheme and intervened to ensure it does not go ahead.
“We will write again to the European Commission in the next few hours to intervene to stop the spread of an element which would be so market distorting,” Minister Maurizio Martina warned in March.
Health organisations welcomed the industry’s move, claiming it helped consumers make decisions in a matter of seconds. For this reason, front-of-pack colour-coded nutritional labelling is proven to be the best way of informing consumers at a glance, noted BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.
But Emma Calvert, a food policy officer at BEUC, said the plan to base labels on portion sizes smaller than the standard ‘per 100g’ was “very problematic”.
“A la carte portion sizes crucially prevent a comparison between products and could be extremely misleading for consumers,” she said. “It could result in fat, sugar or salt levels changing from ‘reds’ to ‘ambers’ or even ‘greens’ without the recipe of the product changing at all,” she told EURACTIV.
Food taxation: Extra burden or solution?
In another attempt to address health concerns related to food consumption, some EU countries have introduced “fat taxes”.
A 2014 EU report found that specific taxes on sugar, salt or fat “in general achieve a reduction in the consumption of the taxed products”. But it also pointed out that a higher tax may do nothing more but encourage consumers to go for cheaper products.
This was confirmed in Hungary, which imposed a sugar tax on food products in 2011. Four years later, research from the National Institute of Food and Nutrition Science indicated a significant change in consumer habits towards cheaper and often healthier alternatives.
Contacted by EURACTIV, the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the EU referred to a WHO report on this particular case, which stated that the “public health product tax” (PHPT) had achieved its short- and long-term public health goal, as the consumption of the taxed products had decreased and stayed at lower levels.
“One important result is that more than two-thirds of the people who changed products chose a healthier alternative. As two-thirds of Hungarian adults are overweight or obese, another important public health achievement is that these groups were more likely to reduce their consumption of the taxed products,” the WHO report noted.
“The PHPT has also achieved its economic goals, as the planned revenue has been realized each year. The revenue made it possible to increase the health sector workers’ wages by 25% in two stages,” the report concluded.
Floriana Cimmarusti, secretary general of Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), told EURACTIV that a possible solution was taxation on the agri-food industry for food products and sweetened beverages that contain a high level of sugar.
“It aims at encouraging consumers towards healthier diets and the industry to reduce the amount of sugar when processing food while financing obesity’s health costs,” she said.
However, the industry does not share this view. Referring to the examples of Denmark and Finland, the industry believes that food taxation distorts the market and brings negligible public health results.
Denmark was the first country to introduce a fat tax on foods that are high in saturated fat. But the tax was scrapped merely 15 months after its introduction, as it led to inflation, cross-border shopping, job losses and an enormous administrative burden.
The Finnish government imposed a similar tax on sweets and ice creams but it was also abolished.
“It seems that such taxes actually fail to achieve any public health objectives,” Olivier Devaux from the EU Snack association said.
Referring to the same European Commission study, he said that fat taxes “create an increase in administrative burden” and “can have a bigger impact on the competitiveness of individual firms, particularly SMEs, than on that of multinationals”.
“This tends to confirm that such taxes are regressive, they distort competition and harm the competitiveness of individual companies,” Devaux warned.
Education and oversimplification
Wouter Lox, managing director of the EU salt association, said the ultimate goal was to have well-informed consumers but stressed that changing consumer behaviour could only be achieved through education, starting at school.
“Whether in helping the consumers making well-informed choices there is a requirement to provide over-information, impose strict governmental guidelines and taxation on certain products would be indeed questionable,” he noted, adding that having a simplified traffic light system on foods was not a move in the right direction.
Lox also pointed out that there is a difference between an autocratic governmental approach that lifts any responsibility from the consumer, and an approach that provides consumers with enough background to help them make informed choices.
Childhood obesity as a paradigm
The European Commission says a multifaceted approach to disease prevention and promoting of healthy lifestyles is needed to combat obesity.
Europe will face an obesity crisis of vast proportions, according to World Health Organisation projections which predict 89% of Irish men and 77% of Greek men will be overweight by 2030.
“Although there is no silver bullet for tackling the epidemic, governments must do more to restrict unhealthy food marketing and make healthy food more affordable,” said Dr Laura Webber of the UK Health Forum, which worked with the WHO and the European Commission to produce the new projections.
Taxation should indeed be considered as part of a wider range of tools and the complexity of its effects calls for careful consideration and design, a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.
Referring to evidence and the analysis of the WHO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the spokesperson added that taxation measures could promote healthier consumption habits.
“We need education on how to keep ourselves and our families healthy and ward off disease, clear information about the ingredients and nutritional value of the food we eat, and the healthy choice to be the easy choice,” the spokesperson said, citing as an example the European Action Plan on Childhood Obesity.
The action plan, which was a top health priority for the Maltese EU Presidency, focuses on promoting healthier environments, especially in schools and preschools, restricting marketing and advertising for children, encouraging physical activity and increasing research.
In addition, the EU spokesperson said that reformulating food products to contain less salt, fats or sugars was another initiative being explored by member states in the High-Level Group on nutrition and physical activity, chaired by the Commission.
Last week, EU health ministers took a harder line against junk food advertising and called on the member states to put obesity at the top of the political agenda.
The ministers called for measures to reduce the exposure of children and adolescents to “marketing, advertising in any media (including on-line platforms and social media) and sponsorship, of foods high in energy, saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugar and salt and to monitor and report the impact of these measures”.
EU member states also hinted that the industry’s self-regulatory approach might not be enough.
“There is ample evidence to justify more effective actions on the marketing of foods which are high in energy, saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugar and salt. Experience and evidence point to the fact that voluntary action may require regulatory measures in order to be more effective,” read the conclusions of the health ministers’ meeting.