The recent decision by the European Commission to launch infraction proceedings against the UK for its traffic light labelling scheme is a great disappointment as the scheme is vital in helping consumers make an informed choice.
The Department of health went to great lengths to ensure the scheme was compliant with the criteria for national voluntary schemes set out in the EU Food Information Regulations. It is supported by robust research.
The food industry has really got behind the scheme. retailers previously committed to other formats or labels compromised so consumers could have consistency. A broad spectrum of companies agreed to use it, with Coca-Cola most recently joining the club. About two-thirds of products will soon carry the scheme and it is becoming more and more visible in supermarkets.
The initiation of the proceedings, following complaints by some other member states, illustrates how short-term trade interests are too often put ahead of longer-term public health ones. We must tackle the issue of obesity rates, for example.
“The scheme tells consumers what they are buying in an up-front way”
EU member states have made numerous policy declarations about the importance of tackling obesity, most recently in the World Health Organization’s European Food and Nutrition Action Plan for 2015-20, adopted last month. They have also recognised that a range of measures are needed, including user-friendly, interpretative front-of-pack nutrition labelling.
Diet surveys repeatedly show that many people eat too much fat, sugar and salt. This is why Which? campaigned long and hard for a label that could give people nutritional information that helps them make an informed choice at a glance.
Primarily aimed at processed foods, where the fat, sugar and salt content is not always obvious, the scheme agreed and launched last year shows people whether levels of these nutrients are high, medium or low. It is supported by additional information on how much a portion contributes to the Reference Intake (the new GDA) for the nutrient.
Some producers have claimed the scheme is a barrier to trade and is an attack on imported and traditional products, rather than on unhealthy diets.
We don’t agree. The scheme is voluntary and appears on products produced in the UK as well as from other countries. It does not discourage consumers from making judgements about foods that are better quality or more traditionally produced - it just tells them exactly what is in the products they are buying in a clear and up-front way. The UK has two months to respond to the criticisms and defend the scheme. It must do so vigorously - and we all need to support it.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?