While the debate surrounding the Food Standards Agency's traffic-light labelling rages on, another aspect of front-of-pack labelling has been largely overshadowed: health and nutrition claims.
Now, in an attempt to shake up European rules, Brussels bureaucrats are developing a new regulation aimed at harmonising the use of claims such as 'low fat', 'high fibre' or 'reduced sugar'. The proposed regulation is midway through its second reading, with a final European Parliament vote scheduled for mid-May. But is the industry ready to deal with more labelling diktats? And won't the new regime conflict with Guideline Daily Amounts and traffic lights?
At the moment there are no legally binding European rules covering health and nutrition claims. The proposed regulation, which will pass directly into UK law, aims to define minimum and maximum amounts of fibre or fat in foods claiming to be high or low in these nutrients. The European Commission also wants to clear up confusion over '90% fat-free' claims, which can mislead consumers by implying that food has low fat content while it actually contains a fairly high content of 10%.
Within three years of the regulation taking effect, the Commission is expected to make a positive list of permitted health claims and demand more scientific evaluation of others, such as claims that whole grain might reduce risk of heart disease. It believes that claims about a product's benefits could lead consumers to eat too much of something that should only constitute a small part of a healthy diet.
"Putting certain claims on a label may help consumers make a choice," says Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, assistant director food policy at the British Retail Consortium. "Sales can be increased greatly by including claims, but it's important to protect consumers by ensuring accuracy."
At the moment, claims do not have to be approved in the UK, but companies must be able to substantiate them. Trading Standards officers can ask manufacturers to prove a claim if an expression such as 'contains calcium for healthy bones' is challenged.
The FSA supports the proposed regulation, which, it says, will protect consumers from false and misleading claims and benefit businesses by providing greater legal clarity. It adds that the new regulation should be easier to enforce than the current regime.
However, the Council of Ministers, the EU's central decision-making body, doesn't agree with the European Parliament on strategy. The Council backs the use of nutrient profiles but the Parliament believes that their use should be qualified, so that a product that is low in fat but high in sugar, say, is not just labelled simply as low in fat. "It's difficult to forecast what will happen," admits Martinez-Inchausti. "Either there has to be a compromise or a third reading. It could all drag on until next year."
If a compromise is reached, the regulation could be published in the late summer or early autumn, giving companies 18 months to implement amendments.
Many big retailers and manufacturers are pretty much up to speed with potential changes. Nestlé, for example, says it is working with trade associations in the UK and at European level to ensure workable legislation is put in place. And Waitrose, one of the few companies to go for front-of-pack traffic lights, has been liaising with the FSA through the BRC over the legislation's development.
"It will encourage a common approach to healthy eating across Europe, which will build on progress already achieved in the UK," says a spokesman. "There may be amendments to detail, but generally this will support our initiatives."
If the bureaucrats agree, a question still remains about whether the UK's current activity on health labelling will conflict with the new EU regulation.
"The BRC is trying to clarify whether specifying nutrient content in the form of GDAs or traffic lights will be covered by the legislation. "It's just providing information, rather than making a claim," says Martinez-Inchausti. "We understand they are outside the scope, however we need confirmation." The FSA insists that the latest text of the proposed EC regulation does not conflict with its signpost labelling plans.
A spokeswoman says: "Some declarations in our front-of-pack signpost labelling will coincide with nutrition claims permitted under this regulation and will have to conform to the conditions: for example, 'low fat' can only be claimed where fat content is no higher than 3%, which is what we are saying. However, if that changes we will have to make amendments."
Cathryn Higgs, deputy scientific adviser at The Co-operative Group, agrees that the move to ban misleading and dubious food claims is an important step towards public health protection, but adds that legislation needs to be clear and measures introduced proportionate to the problem, without undue restrictions.
She argues that The Co-operative Group's labelling serves the best interests of consumers and shouldn't have to make significant changes.
"We would be extremely disappointed if the measure conflicted with our current practices, such as front-of-pack indication of fat/salt and calories and high, medium and low indicators in the nutrition panel."
Like Waitrose, the group is liaising with the FSA, as well as industry bodies and the European Community of Consumer Cooperatives, to find a sensible solution.
So could it mean that manufacturers and retailers rushing to put snazzy new graphics on packs should hold back? Not necessarily, says Martinez-Inchausti. "If, as we understand it, traffic-light labels are outside the scope of the regulation, then nothing should change." Some manufacturers share her optimism. Müller doesn't anticipate changes if proposals are 'fair and proportionate' and says it's liaising with various trade bodies.
Nestlé - one of those manufacturers who favour GDAs - is even more bullish about the legislative process.
A spokeswoman says: "The regulation covers the use of nutrient profiles for making science-based nutrition and health claims, which define conditions under which claims can be made. The scope of the regulation does not include traffic-light labelling."
Let's hope we find out next month.
The new guidelines