Who: UK Department of Health
Where: A supermarket near you
When: 19 June 2013
Law stated as at: 19 June 2013
On 19 June, the Department of Health launched its unified front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme, based on a “traffic light” system of red, amber or green for fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories alongside a “reference” labelling system for guideline daily amounts (“GDA”) per 100g of product.
Consumer magazine Which and the Food Standards Agency both conducted research in 2006 and came to the view that the traffic light system in conjunction with GDAs was the best method of enabling consumers to understand nutritional information.
Green light for pan-European regulation in 2011
Regular Marketinglaw readers may remember our report on the creation of the new European food labelling regime in 2011. This “Regulation on the Provision of Food information to consumers” (the “Regulation”) will begin to come into force next year and will set a pan-European standard for the information that must be provided on packaged food. For further details on which provisions will be in force when, interested readers should refer to DEFRA’s non-statutory guidance on the issue.
While the Regulation will, among other things, create a requirement to display amounts of nutrients per 100g in a clear tabular form, it does not require traffic light labelling or the provision of GDA information. Nor does it mandate that this information appears on the front of the packaging. Furthermore, it will not be mandatory to have back-of-pack nutrition labelling until 13 December 2016 (subject to the current exceptions for where a nutrition or health claim is made, or vitamins or minerals are added to a foodstuff where nutrition labelling is already mandatory).
Despite this, over the past decade a number of retailers have opted to adopt a front-of-pack traffic light system as best practice.
However without the focus of a specific requirement from Brussels on the horizon, a number of different approaches to displaying this information have grown up.
Flashing amber for a single system in 2012; green in 2013?
In 2012, the health minister Anna Soubry announced that the government would support consistent front of pack labelling to make things simpler for consumers. The system launched on 19 June 2013 is an attempt to standardise front-of-pack traffic light and reference labelling (how much of your GDA of fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories is in a 100g portion).
The good news for consumers is that all 10 of the UK’s major supermarkets have signed up to this system of labelling, along with McCain Foods, Mars UK, Nestle UK, PepsiCo UK and Premier Foods.
The aim is that a unified approach across the big 10 supermarkets and several major food brands will help a gold standard of labelling to develop and provide consumers with a consistent measure of the nutritional content and “healthiness” (or otherwise) of foodstuffs.
Jumping the lights
However, consumers should still look both ways when crossing the supermarket aisle, as several notable brands have refused to adopt the government’s preferred labelling system. On the day of the government’s announcement, Marketingweek reported that Coca Cola, Mondelez (owners of Cadbury), United Biscuits, Unilever, Kellogg and Dairy Crest had all declined to change their packaging to incorporate this system.
A number of these brands refused to alter their practices on the basis that they had pan-European operations, and felt that the system of nutritional labelling they currently use was both clear and compliant with the European standards. It was also reported that Dairy Crest took the view that “the proposed traffic lights system fails to recognise the many health benefits of milk and dairy products within a varied and balanced diet”. Also, a number of the above brands already provide GDA information but do not do so on the reference basis (i.e. per 100g), as this is not a requirement.
Taking the above into consideration, the new standard looks to only be adopted by manufacturers of 60% of the food sold in the UK.
Why this matters:
While getting all the major supermarkets on board is somewhat of a coup for the government, the refusal of 40% of manufacturers to participate in the scheme may limit its effectiveness. It remains to be seen whether the idea of best practice does develop around the new system and whether this combined with consumer pressure encourages others to follow suit. Given that the Regulation itself is not slated to be in full force until 2016, it appears unlikely that there will be any pressure from Brussels to formalise a different and more stringent system.
Universal adoption either of traffic lighting or front-of-pack nutritional information therefore still seems some way off. However there may be more incentive for manufacturers to move towards displaying GDA per 100g, given that from 2016 the majority of foods will have to give nutritional information per 100g in any event.
In the meantime, consumers will still have to read carefully to check they are comparing like with like, given that brands will still be utilising a range of methods to display nutritional information on-pack.