As major suppliers swear their allegiance to GDA labelling, Simon Mowbray asks if it really is the end for traffic lights

When food and drink behemoths Nestlé, Kellogg, Unilever et al jumped the lights by joining forces to advocate front-of-pack labelling based on Guideline Daily Amounts, it was inevitable that a few shock waves were to be felt through the industry.
As regular readers of The Grocer will know, this magazine has never been a fan of the over-simplistic multiple traffic-light scheme that the Food Standards Agency seems hell-bent on advocating for food and drink suppliers at its board meeting next month following a lengthy consultation.
Yet for last week’s group of six major manufacturers - and indeed Cadbury and Masterfoods the week before, albeit through a watered-down Be Treatwise initiative where GDAs will be put on the backs of packs - to come out and arguably bring some sanity to the debate by flicking a metaphorical two fingers at FSA chiefs’ naive red, amber and green system was always going to cause ructions.
As The Grocer revealed last week, major retailers - particularly Sainsbury, which has its own Wheel of Health labelling scheme - were quick to distance themselves from the group of eight’s (now nine, including this week’s recruitment of Campbell’s) move to form a breakaway labelling league.
Only Tesco, on whose scheme the GDA move is believed to have been based, has openly welcomed the move, while consumer groups such as the National Consumer Council were inevitably quick to start an ‘evil food industry’-style bandwagon rolling as they accused the manufacturers of “a cynical move to derail the FSA’s steady progress towards an industry-wide agreement on front-of-pack food labelling”.
Meanwhile, FSA bosses have been furiously sucking their cheeks to deliver conciliatory pronouncements about how it is “encouraging” that the breakaway manufacturers are at least taking the issue “seriously” as they undoubtedly ponder how the hell they will get the lead zeppelin that is traffic-light labelling to fly now.
What is for sure is that the breakaway league is not for turning. As Jane Holdsworth, the former PepsiCo corporate affairs director who brokered the deal between the suppliers that have joined forces so far, puts it: “We have made a commitment to launch GDA labelling this spring and we will go ahead and do that.
“We acknowledge that there has been a consultation process (with the FSA) and we have consistently made the same points about why GDAs are the best solution so we would not envisage traffic lights appearing on the packs of these manufacturers.”
However, despite Holdsworth’s confidence that more producers will inevitably come on board following the conclusion of ongoing talks, it would be foolish to think the move to GDAs is a done deal, even if the FSA’s pronouncement on suggested traffic lights is given short shrift by other manufacturers not yet signed up to GDAs. For example, there are still obvious omissions from the superlist of nine major producers that have nailed their colours to the GDA mast so far, although Holdsworth is confident of further announcements in the near future.
She also insists that accusations that the group she represents are merely servicing their own self interests are wide of the mark. “This is about manufacturers being absolutely honest on the front of pack, a space they would usually want to claim totally for brand image. It is also a competitive issue because it pits products using this scheme directly against each other by showing consumers the information they need to make informed choices.”
However, other industry players may take a different view on this point. As one senior source at a major retailer tells The Grocer, the whole point of your own labelling scheme is that it offers the opportunity to flag up a point of difference from rivals.
Whatever the finer points of this argument may be, one certainty is that the FSA can expect a barrage of criticism, at least from the industry, if it does advocate traffic lights.
In submissions to the agency, both Kraft and Kellogg have produced simple research that arguably blows holes in any argument in favour of traffic lights. For example, a study by Kraft found that a basket of 10 staple items, including bread, margarine and cereals, would, under the multiple traffic-lights scheme, contain 21 green lights, seven amber lights and 16 red lights. A basket of better for you equivalents, featuring items such as wholemeal bread, low-fat spread and a bran-based cereal, would feature 20 green lights - one fewer than the standard option - 12 amber and 12 red lights.
Meanwhile, Kellogg’s research shows that the labelling for a standard pizza and a reduced fat pizza would be absolutely identical under traffic lights, the argument being that consumers are not really helped to make an informed choice at all.
However, a higher power could have the final say, says Owen Warnock, a partner and expert in food labelling at solicitors Eversheds - and he doesn’t mean the FSA.
“The FSA only has the power to introduce guidelines and any industry standard will require the buy-in of business,” says Warnock. “It seems likely that when the FSA announces its final proposal, its scheme will be ignored by much of the industry. Enforceable regulation in this area can only come at European level. Currently, there appears to be little movement in this direction, however I think there will in the end be Europe-wide regulation on this topic.” Now there’s food for thought.

Meanwhile, in the regulatory kitchen...
>>restrictions on advertising to children, department of health obesity campaign
Signposting may be at the front of the queue but the industry is still awaiting details of other health initiatives.
Not least of these is the Ofcom consultation into advertising to children. The preparation work is now in its final stages and the plan is to issue it out to consultation in March/April. The review is based on the FSA’s nutrient profiling model, which scores foods on their good and bad content and is likely to result in greater restrictions.
The Food and Drink Advertising and Promotion Forum has delayed its next meeting while it awaits the Ofcom consultation. This body is looking at if, and how, self-regulatory codes for non-broadcast media should be strengthened. Its timeline has slipped dramatically, with an original plan for industry to adopt any new code of conduct early this year. Some working groups have, however, met for inaugural meetings, namely new media and point of sale.
The area in which industry most welcomes involvement is in social marketing. The DH plans an obesity campaign in June, with the first phase focused on two to ten-year-olds. It will encourage balance between eating and exercise.

An ‘obvious target’
>>adult vending dragged into debate
After last week’s revelation in The Grocer (p8) that the FSA was in talks with government and other agencies about vending in publicly funded buildings, it looks as if vending will be the next battleground in the ongoing health debate.
The row over school vending machines already looks set to go against suppliers of sweets, biscuits, fizzy drinks and crisps with a ban widely expected as the government approaches the end of a consultation on diet in schools.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the FDF, is among those who fear the government could widen its scope. “There is a new front opening up on the whole vending debate,” he says. “It will hit every place in the public sector where food is sold outside mealtimes. It all comes down to whether you believe you can separate foods into good and bad camps. I don’t buy into that.”
Alison Ward, communications director at the Biscuit Cake Chocolate and Confectionery Association says: “The government has to deliver on health by the next election or its critics will be jumping all over it. Vending is an obvious target to get quick results.
“But there’s no reason why machines couldn’t have a range of so-called healthy and unhealthy products.”
Richard Laming, public affairs manager at the British Soft Drinks Association, adds: “Vending is one channel among many. It makes no sense to single it out. Besides, if you try and restrict the range of drinks in machines, you run the risk of those machines no longer being viable.”
But Janette Gledhill, director of the Automatic Vending Association, doesn’t anticipate a crackdown. “Our discussions have been about wider choice.”