The mountain has laboured and brought forth a mouse. Earlier this month the Food Standards Agency produced the results of three years of research into the "comprehension and use of UK nutrition signpost labelling schemes". As the FSA itself has long favoured the so-called traffic-light formula, the published conclusions supporting that same system were either ignored by the media or greeted with a stifled yawn.
This was rather a pity as some of the findings, if not exactly surprising, were certainly worthy of comment. For example, taking front-of-pack labels in general, the study confirms what has always been intuitively obvious to sceptics - that these labels are valued by consumers already converted to healthy eating and ignored by those who aren't. So much for the proposition that these labels will actually change bad eating habits. It also confirms a much-reported finding from other research, namely that factors such as price and brand loyalty often outweigh front-of-pack labels as an influence on consumer choice.
As for choosing between the two rival schemes currently in use - traffic lights and GDAs - consumer preferences bear little or no relation to their actual understanding of the schemes. Indeed, the most popular choice was a combination of both schemes: "Including all these elements together allowed consumers to use the elements that they were most comfortable with." So much for the tedious squabbling among their respective cheerleaders.
More interesting findings are in the FSA's latest Consumer Attitudes Tracker survey. Despite Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall's best efforts, spontaneously voiced concerns over the conditions under which animals are raised remain at only 8%, while total concern has fallen significantly since 2001. Similarly, over the same period spontaneous concerns about GM foods have fallen to a paltry 6% from over 20%. Languishing towards the bottom of the table are food miles (5%) and school meals (3%). Saturated fat scores 12% - hardly surprising in view of recent media exposure - but overall concerns about fat in general have stayed remarkably stable since the start of this decade. Worries about food poisoning (21%) easily outdistance the rest.
Again, unsurprising. Immediate, personal threats will always triumph over general, more remote concerns - much to the chagrin of single-issue fanatics everywhere.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.