The government has admitted its universal front-of-pack nutrition labelling system could be “misleading and unhelpful” to consumers - and told food and drink companies they can decide for themselves if they want to opt out.

In a long-awaited official response to the consultation - which casts doubt over how universal the scheme will be - the DH said it would work with the industry to develop a standard hybrid system of GDAs and colour coding. But it revealed that “no consensus” had been reached in the fraught negotiations over which products should be exempt.

Although all the major supermarkets have got behind the voluntary scheme, several suppliers have claimed traffic lights could be misleading for products such as cheese, which, while high in fat and salt, provides other nutrients.

“While it was agreed labelling would be most useful on composite foods, there was no consensus on the foods that should not carry front-of-pack labelling,” said the DH. “We therefore believe that decisions on exemptions should be made by food businesses, with the caveat that they should not set out to be misleading.”

The DH added that it would “promote front-of-pack uptake as widely as possible, but with the proviso that use on some single-ingredient products may be misleading”.

It also revealed supermarkets had produced “little evidence” to support the effectiveness of their front-of-pack schemes, which it hopes to replace from this spring with the hybrid of GDAs and traffic lights being drawn up by the BRC and the FDF.

“The DH approach has been very sensible in this consultation,” said Andrew Opie, director of food at the BRC. “They have listened to what the industry has said and I think there is a recognition that there are issues for some products.”