Last week the fat lady began tuning up her vocal chords over the future of the FSA’s traffic-light labelling scheme. In setting out the Tories’ health agenda, Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s tub thumping ‘No excuses, no nannying’ speech heralded the end of the road for traffic lights.

And a lot more. Beyond signalling a victory for the GDA camp, Lansley’s Responsibility Deal speech has a wider resonance for the food industry and could, say experts, usher in a bright new dawn of co-operation between the food industry and government.

Of course, much depends on the Tories getting into power at the next general election, but few commentators are forecasting a Labour victory at the moment. So if the Conservatives do take power, as predicted, what exactly can the industry expect?

As well as the abolition of the traffic-light system – which, Lansley says, “only tells people a fraction of what they need to know”, he hints at less draconian restrictions on advertising, and greater co-operation and support for the work already under way by the industry on reformulation and portion size. He even made the significant appointment of Unilever UK chairman Dave Lewis to the chair of a new public health working group of business representatives, voluntary groups and experts.

“Together we will invite views on proposals and hammer out the detail of the deal,” promised Lansley.

With Lewis at the helm, the industry can be sure its viewpoint will be heard going forward. But the Tory stance has already been warmly welcomed by the Food and Drink Federation, which has led the way in the development of the GDA scheme and the subsequent consumer educational campaign.

“Obviously we have to work with any party that is in government,” says FDF director general Melanie Leech. “But we are encouraged both by the substance and tone of the message should the government go blue.” Leech draws parallels between the Tories’ support for industry initiatives and the rather difficult relationship that has developed between the industry and the FSA recently over reformulation.

In July, many manufacturers and supplier groups expressed outrage at what they saw as “unrealistic and technically infeasible” revised targets from the FSA on salt reduction, whose calls came despite the industry’s already substantial progress in reducing fat, salt and sugar. “It is good to have recognition of achievements as you go along,” says Leech. “It’s all part of a process of continuous improvement, while in the past it has felt like you were being told to go back to scratch and start from day one.”

While Lansley did not go into great detail on his proposals, Leech interprets his pronouncement that a Tory government would have “proportionate regulation on advertising” as another positive.

“Of course we don’t want the current restrictions on advertising to be extended any further but what we hope he means is that there will be no political intervention with Ofcom,” she says. “In the past, we felt Ofcom was pressurised to take other factors beyond health issues into consideration.”

Nutritional label collision course
Ofcom is expected to publish its own research into the impact of the current restrictions of high fat, salt and sugar products by the end of the year. A spokeswoman says any further action would be governed by that research.

However it is the thorny area of front-of-pack nutrition labelling that is still likely to cause the most tension should the Conservatives get into office. If it is the next government, it is likely to find itself on a collision course with the FSA. There is little love lost between the Tories and the FSA.

That much became clear when the former backed The Grocer’s Weigh It Up! campaign to force the FSA to review its controversial Nutrient Profiling Model, which unfairly labels many staple foods such as cheese and cereals as unhealthy.

Last April, the-then shadow health minister for children Steve O’Brien branded the model “a crude and ludicrous approach” that needed to be reviewed. Lansley’s speech will surely only stoke the flames further. Under the Conservatives, government and FSA promotion of traffic-light labelling would stop, he says. “Why can consumers see taxpayer-funded traffic-light adverts on the side of a bus, and then not find them in their shop?”

FSA stand on independence
The FSA, however, is not taking this criticism lying down. “We will continue to work to support the interests of the consumer and to base our work on sound evidence,” says an FSA spokesman. A major independent evaluation of three different approaches – GDAs, traffic lights and a hybrid system – is currently under way to determine which approach consumers find most useful. The spokesman reiterates the point that the FSA will follow whichever scheme comes out as the consumer’s preferred choice. The findings are likely to come out next spring, just as the country is likely to be beginning to get gripped by election fever. In the meantime, the Tories’ support for mandatory GDAs will have a large proportion of the food and drink industry jumping for joy but will, of course, leave many companies – which have advanced down the traffic-light model – scratching their heads.

So far those in the traffic-light camp are sticking to their guns. Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and M&S all confirmed this week that they were happy with their labelling methods and not planning any changes.

Asda and Marks & Spencer currently operate a hybrid system that would seem to meet Lansley’s criteria and so are unlikely to shift to a GDA-only system.

A spokesman for Asda says the retailer had presented its dual model to Lansley and that he had been supportive of it. However Waitrose, the first major retailer to add traffic lights to packs, says it will continue to work according to FSA criteria. The traffic lights debate aside, the “no nannying” hands-off approach to health and obesity suggested by the Tories can only find favour with an industry that fears becoming as heavily regulated as the big tobacco companies.

The Tories may well have just secured themselves another serious chunk of votes – even among traditional Labour supporters.