Food Standards Agency chairman Sir John Krebs this week conceded the government would have to tread carefully to avoid scaring consumers away from important foods under any new labelling system.
Speaking to The Grocer at a Labour Party Conference fringe event, Sir John said products that formed part of a balanced diet, such as dairy, could be shunned if labelled red or if they appeared unhealthy.
The comments came a week after The Grocer launched its Junk the Spin campaign by highlighting a selection of foods that could be demonised if the wrong approach to labelling were taken by government (The Grocer, September 25, p4).
Sir John stated that food signposting would play a key role in government plans to target obesity and that a number of systems would be tested over the coming year. The food industry fears that a single traffic light scheme is among these and that this would prove unworkable. “One of the tests of any system is that it has to be sensible,” said Sir John, “We will try out a number of different ideas and hopefully come up with something that is clear and understandable.”
Health secretary John Reid said that labelling, together with the reformulation of foods and education, was the starting point for tackling obesity.
This issue is one of the key planks of the government’s White Paper, Choosing Health, now expected no earlier than the end of the month. The Grocer is spearheading a campaign to ensure the industry’s voice is heard during these last crucial weeks. Whitehall insiders say Reid has not yet made up his mind on key issues.
The Junk the Spin campaign is aimed at counteracting the spin that has been put out by single-issue lobby groups over the past year and which has dominated media coverage of the food and health debate. There are indications that the industry’s message is beginning to get through.
Reid told The Grocer he recognised the industry’s efforts to improve food labelling, restrict product sizes and reduce salt and sugar content. “There are signs this is being taken seriously by retailers and wholesalers,” he said.
But on labelling he added: “We need to find a simple but comprehensive system.”
Industry voiced its concerns over the direction the government would take over labelling, reformulation and advertising to children after a meeting with ministers last month. This week it launched a manifesto showing how it could help in improving the nation’s health.
>>p28 Opinion; p30 Letters; p40 Junk the Spin
Amy Balchin