‘Traffic lights’ on food packages?

The use of ‘traffic lights’ to identify products that are high, medium or low in salt, sugar and fat is one of the schemes under discussion for unified EU food labelling. Industry, however, opposes the proposal.

In an interview with euractiv.com, Sue Davies, principal food policy adviser for UK consumer association Which?, highlights the need for an EU-level nutrition labelling scheme. 

“What is of particular concern currently is that we have different labelling schemes. We need a unified system. However, we do not want to go to a single labelling scheme that would be completely unhelpful for consumers,” she said. “Several retailers and manufacturers are using [the traffic light scheme] in the UK and when you actually look at independent research, it is overwhelmingly judged as the most useful for consumers.”

The European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC) has, during recent months, chaired a multi-stakeholder discussion group, comparing the different ‘simplified’ labelling systems currently in use in the EU. The group, composed of national authorities, food manufacturers and retailers and academics discussed, based on real consumer research, what would be best understood by consumers and what would really help them to choose between products.

“The proliferation of many different simplified labelling schemes is a cause of unnecessary confusion,” state the conclusions, in which the stakeholder group agreed on the basic principles of what the unified scheme should look like. “The use of colour coding of levels of nutrients as an interpretative element to help consumers make sense of the numerical information seems to be a promising way forward,” state the conclusions.

The issue of alternative presentation of nutrition labelling information, including “signposting” scheme was highlighted as one of the issues concerning the review of the nutrition labelling legislation in the Commission’s consultative document ‘Labelling: competitiveness, consumer information and better regulation for the EU’ (February 2006). 

According to a Commission official, “the Commission is currently considering the responses to the consultation and the available information on various front of pack nutrition labelling systems, including different national schemes, that are being used on the labelling of products, but the Commission has not taken any positions or finalised any proposals on the subject.”

Danone, Kellogg's, Kraft, Nestlé and PepsiCo have rejected the FSA initiative and announced their own labelling scheme focusing on guideline daily amounts (GDAs). 

Head of service and nutrition department at Nestlé research centre, Gillian Anantharaman-Barr, said: "Simply providing colours is not a good idea - how would you label a bottle of olive oil with the traffic-light system? We very much prefer and find stronger the harmonised initiative at European level, proposed by the CIAA, on dietary guideline allowances." 

"A colour-coded scheme is the best way to help people make healthier food choices quickly, easily and accurately," said Sue Davies, the principal food-policy adviser of Which?, the British consumer association

"We definitely need a harmonised front-pack labelling scheme in Europe. However, we don't have any preference," said Barbara Gallani, food-policy adviser at the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC)

The BEUC discussion group was supported by Socialist MEP Dorette Corbey, whose office confirmed that she takes the traffic light scheme "very seriously" and would support it as an EU-harmonised proposal.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has developed, as part of the UK Government's White Paper initiative to help make healthier food choices easier, a front-of-pack scheme based on 'traffic lights'. 

The result of "extensive consumer research and ongoing discussion with the food industry, public-health and consumer groups", the scheme aims to provide shoppers with 'at-a-glance' information on the level of fat, sugar and salt in processed food products - red for high, orange/amber for medium and green for low. 

The scheme would be voluntary, but the FSA would like to see it adopted as an industry standard.

  • A WHO European ministerial conference on counteracting obesity took place on 15-17 November 2006. The ministers adopted a European Charter on counteracting obesity, which, among other issues calls for adequate nutrition labelling.
  • The EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, launched in March 2005, is discussing consumer information labelling.

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