If we are not careful, British consumers could find themselves in a situation more muddled and confusing than anything dreamt up by bureaucrats in Brussels.
Freedom for the UK to regulate its own front-of-pack labelling system and dispense with years of EU red tape was hailed by Boris Johnson as just one of the many benefits of Brexit.
Not as headline-grabbing, perhaps, as immigration, sausage wars or US trade deals, it was nevertheless a classic example of the mission to “take back control”.
Yet if we are not careful, British consumers could find themselves in a situation more muddled and confusing than anything dreamt up by those pernickety Brussels bureaucrats.
At the weekend, Nestlé joined retailers including M&S, The Co-op and Sainsbury’s to announce the launch of Foundation Earth, a new front-of-pack eco-score, which will roll out across a host of products in September.
It measures criteria including carbon emissions, water usage, impact on biodiversity loss, and water pollution using a traffic light system similar to the voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling system the DH rolled out in 2013.
So now customers, provided they care about the twin threats to the environment and their waistlines, will have to get their heads around two sets of front-of-pack traffic lights.
The new schemes don’t end there. Last week Morrisons announced it was breaking from the government’s traffic lights system, claiming it was no longer fit for purpose.
It uses a combination of traffic lights, an Australian star-based system and the Nutri-Score system, which is being increasingly adopted, ironically, across EU countries and has growing support among suppliers and campaigners alike.
Like Foundation Earth, the Morrisons scheme appears well-intentioned and demonstrates an increased confidence and preparedness to lead from the front on key public affairs issues. But there is also a danger of shopper confusion. The government launched a consultation on what to do with front-of-pack labelling almost a year ago and the industry is still waiting for the results, with options ranging from Nutri-Score to a Chilean-based system akin to cigarette packet warnings.
Meanwhile, the food industry also awaits government proposals to launch its own carbon labelling scheme, less than a decade after a Carbon Trust label was abandoned by the likes of Tesco and Boots as it was too expensive and confusing.
In the government policy vacuum it’s easy to see why industry wants to take ownership amid public concern over issues such as health and the environment. In another example, last year Tesco collaborated with WWF on a new metric enabling customers to understand the environmental footprint of its most popular products.
But while few will mourn the EU’s labelling regime, which brought us dreaded phrases like “reference intakes”, neither must we bombard the public with too many competing (and self-serving) messages or public trust will be undermined.
Ironically, the Foundation Earth scheme comes amid European Commission plans for a European eco-score to inform consumers about the environmental impact of different products, amid growing support for such a move in France.
So, could freedom from Brexit mean adopting EU-style systems for both the environment and nutrition and doing away with those good old Blighty traffic lights? It might be ironic but it may also be the only sane way to proceed.