With Tesco and now Aldi doing a u-turn at the traffic lights, has the time come for suppliers to abandon their opposition?
It’s little more than three months since The Grocer revealed the government’s intention to reopen the industry’s biggest ever can of worms these past few years - front-of-pack traffic-light labelling - and the entire landscape has suddenly and perhaps irrevocably changed.
At the time, sources within the DH were expecting one hell of a fight - not least from the UK’s biggest retailer, which had steadfastly opposed the idea for nearly a decade.
That’s why Tesco’s u-turn last week - adopting a hybrid of the two basic labelling systems - has not only surprised even seasoned industry watchers but proved a game changer, with Aldi this week the latest to reveal to The Grocer it is dropping its opposition to traffic lights and Morrisons expected to follow suit any time.
“There is a growing consensus that customers want to see colour coding as part of the front-of-pack information they need to help them lead healthier lifestyles,” says Tony Baines, managing director of buying at Aldi, echoing comments from Tesco CEO Philip Clarke.
With retailers large and small increasingly united, this leaves branded suppliers and their umbrella body, the FDF, looking increasingly isolated in their support for the alternative Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). So will they bow to the seemingly inevitable?
The FDF’s official line is still that traffic lights are “unfair” and “misleading”. “The FDF objects to the use of red, amber and green colour coding to categorise products as ‘high’ ‘medium’ or ‘low’ in fat, sugar and salt,” it says, and “could mislead consumers, as traffic lights fail to take account of portion sizes and the consumption of a particular food in the context of the daily diet”.
However, the Federation, is now frantically gauging the appetite of its members for a fight. It had all looked very different last year when the EU threw out plans for mandatory front-of-pack labelling, with Lansley himself having previously vowed the UK government “will stop” traffic lights.
Some legal experts are now suggesting suppliers throw in the towel. “I was surprised by the Tesco announcement considering their previous position, but they wouldn’t have made that statement without talking to their leading suppliers,” says Teresa Hitchcock, head of health and safety practice at global law firm DLA Piper.
“My advice to manufacturers would be that the writing is on the wall,” she says. “I don’t think it is worth the fight and I think they should tread very carefully.”
Hitchcock claims continued opposition from suppliers could be seen as an “admission of guilt”. However, even if suppliers cede their position, it is by no means certain health groups will be satisified. Lansley sees his controversial Responsibility Deal as the perfect vehicle for a pledge on traffic lights, but above all he is seeking consensus, and hybrid systems that also feature GDAs and portion size-based information still leave the way open for interpretation, rather than a truly universal adoption of the model first envisaged by the Food Standards Agency.
The FSA’s system - backed by a who’s who of health groups, including the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK and Which? - combines traffic lights, with the words ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’, based on a 100g portion, and is used by Asda, The Co-operative, Boots and McCain - the only supplier to fully support the scheme.
But Sainsbury’s hybrid system - now embraced by Tesco and Aldi - doesn’t include the words ‘high/medium/low’, and also features GDAs based on portions. That may be sensible, but purist it is not. And perhaps it forms the basis for the next battle line.