UK food labelling: Consistent system to start next year

A consistent system of front-of-pack food labelling will be introduced in the UK next year, as the government attempts to curb growing rates of obesity. The scheme will be voluntary, but government is confident they have the food industry on board.

Just over a quarter of adults in England were classified as being obese (BMI 30kg/m2 or over), according to 2010 figures published this year by NHS Information Centre.

Urgent action is needed to tackle the epidemic as estimates show that by 2020, 41 per cent of men aged 20 to 65 will be obese and a further 40 per cent will be overweight. Meanwhile, 36 per cent of women will be obese and 32 per cent classed as overweight.

The Department of Health says that the proposed system – a combination of guideline daily amounts (GDA), colour coding and high/medium/low text – will make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices about the food they eat.

The move to introduce a consistent food labeling system comes after a three-month consultation with retailers, manufacturers and other interested parties on what a consistent, clear front of pack label should look like.

Many retailers already use variants of a hybrid system, and some provide only GDA. However they each display the information with different visuals, colour and content making it hard for consumers to compare foods.

Although all UK supermarkets backed the proposal to introduce traffic light labelling by mid-2013, large FMCG companies, including Nestlé, Kellogg’s and Dairy Crest have warned they will not support a system which they say would unfairly blacklist many of their products for sugar and salt content, without recognising the positive nutritional aspects.

The NHS National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) first called for “clear labelling” describing the content of food and drink products in guidance on preventing cardiovascular disease, published in June 2010.

Clear labelling is important because it helps consumers to make informed choices. It may also be an important means of encouraging manufacturers and retailers to reformulate processed foods high in saturated fats, salt and added sugars, the guidance states.

NICE has been calling for the Food Standards Agency’s single, integrated, front-of-pack traffic light colour-coded system to be the national standard for food and drink products sold in England.

The, traffic light is a colour-coding visual icon and includes text which indicates whether food or drink contains a ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ level of salt, fat or sugar. It also includes text to indicate the product’s percentage contribution to the guideline daily amount (GDA) from each category.

Professor Mike Kelly, Director of Public Health at NICE, welcomes the move as positive step in the fight against diet related diseases and obesity.

“Our guidance on preventing cardiovascular health recommended introducing front-of-label traffic light coding so I am pleased that the government has now decided to adopt this system.

“It is important that the labelling system used in England sets the standard of best practice.

“Evidence shows that simple traffic light labelling consistently works better than more complex schemes, and we know that people want a single, trusted system of nutritional labelling and a clear and consistent approach that does not change depending on where they shop.”

Professor Kelly believes that it will be critically important that the next stage – to agree the detail of the proposed system – is conducted transparently, and that the criteria on which the colour coding is based are scientifically robust and meaningful.

“Any watering down of the ‘traffic light’ criteria developed by the Food Standards Agency would signal a lack of commitment by food companies.

“Public health advocates around the world are watching with keen interest what will be agreed in the UK and that places a significant responsibility on the Government and how it leads this process.”

Public Health Minister Anna Soubry, adds: “The UK already has the largest number of products with front of pack labels in Europe but research has shown that consumers get confused by the wide variety of labels used.

“By having a consistent system we will all be able to see at a glance what is in our food. This will help us all choose healthier options and control our calorie intake.

“Obesity and poor diet cost the NHS billions of pounds every year. Making small changes to our diet can have a big impact on our health and could stop us getting serious illnesses – such as heart disease – later in life.”

The UK Governments will now work with industry and other partners to agree the detail of the system and make sure they use consistent visuals to show – on front of packs – how much fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar, and how many calories are in food products.

Source: NICE

How research could help food labelling dilemmas

The UK government is attempting to enforce a voluntary consistent system of front-of-pack food labelling next year. But within the food industry – and particularly among manufacturers rather than the supermarkets themselves – there is still grumbling. This article investigates if research techniques can help solve some of the inherent dilemmas in such a scheme.