The debate over traffic light signposting to help consumers quickly assess the nutritional value of foods was reignited this week as the Food Standards Agency announced its recommendation to industry.
After lengthy consumer research, a multiple traffic light system has been proposed that will show whether a food contains high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
The system emerged as the FSA favourite against three other formats - single traffic lights, coloured Guideline Daily Amounts and monochrome GDAs.
Interestingly, though, it was not the consumer favourite. The FSA’s poll of 2,600 people found that consumers preferred the coloured GDA format. But further qualitative testing found that many people, particularly from lower socio-economic and ethnic minority groups, were unable to use the information in this format effectively.
Dame Deirdre Hutton, chair of the FSA, says that the intention is for the scheme to be implemented industry-wide some time next year. But it’s questionable how popular this system will prove to be with an industry that has already voiced serious doubts about its workability.
Hutton has always been a staunch advocate of traffic light signposting. Indeed, before her appointment as chair of the FSA in July, she drove the initiative as head of the National Consumer Council.
Her appointment at the FSA came as a blow to some, who had felt that the FSA was actually softening its stance on traffic light labelling in the wake of vocal opposition from many quarters (not just the industry). Now it seems that, like it or not, traffic light signposting is here to stay.
Hutton explains that the FSA has been looking for a simple solution to a very complex problem. “Consumers want a single scheme across all the industry and from an organisation like the FSA that they can trust.”
A single scheme, at present, seems like wishful thinking. Retailers and manufacturers including The Co-operative Group, Sainsbury, Kellogg and Nestlé have been experimenting with various labelling schemes. Tesco introduced and then abandoned its own traffic light scheme because it proved too simplistic for consumers who were confused by ‘amber’ and misled by ‘red’.
The array of labelling systems raises cries from some corners that the industry has been deliberately trying to confuse consumers in order to sabotage the FSA’s plans. Such views are dismissed as nonsense by retailers. Sainsbury boss Justin King told The Grocer that recent initiatives were a sign of how health has become a competitive issue for the industry. He adds: “The issue is confusing. But we are all trying to provide clarity. If you have lots people doing that it may seem confusing, but over time the industry coalesces around some norms.”
Indeed, many in the industry have long advocated the use of GDAs rather than a simplistic traffic light system that can demonise certain foods, and the fact that a GDA-based system was more popular with consumers than what the FSA has recommended will only add fuel to the fire.
Hutton responds: “People have got to like it, but it’s also got to work. So we’re also looking at performance and I hope that these other retailers and manufacturers will go down our route.”
IGD, the industry thinktank, this week announced the results of research it has been doing into what consumers want from GDAs. It found that 83% of the 1,028 people interviewed thought GDA information should be displayed on all food products.
The most popular format by some distance was a single box format showing the GDAs for both men and women next to the nutritional information. A clear majority thought there should be GDAs for children on food packs too. The final guidelines should be published early next year.
Given Tesco’s research, IGD’s research and even the FSA’s own research, wouldn’t it just be best to educate consumers more fully about nutritional information boxes and GDAs? Hutton thinks not.
Yet new research by Cadbury Schweppes highlights a fundamental flaw in all traffic light schemes. In the research, consumers supported simple traffic light labels on the front of packs. The research mirrored the FSA’s approach by putting signposts on products and asking consumers what they understood by them. Consumers separated products into green, amber and red groups and said the green items, which included diet versions of fizzy drinks, where what the government deemed to be a healthy diet, whereas red products, such as wholemeal bread and full fat milk, were unhealthy.
“Consumers said ‘If I just eat from the green group I will be OK.’ But, of course, their diet will be out of balance as they are missing essential foods,” warns Trish Fields, Cadbury’s consumer impact director.
Hutton does concede that GDAs would complement the traffic light system. She says: “I welcome the work IGD has done on GDAs. We see this as complementary to our work. If people are in a rush they can look at the front of the pack for quick information from the traffic lights, then at the GDA information on the back if they have more time.”
But this concession doesn’t negate the other drawbacks to a traffic light system, such as the costs of implementing it and the debate over what exactly is good or bad for you and the appropriate levels of nutrients.
Cadbury Schweppes’ study also found consumers themselves had some concerns. For instance, consumers who suffer from heart disease will have different needs to those who suffer from diabetes. Traffic lights were also seen as judgmental in tone and fell short of expectations of a government-led initiative. Plus, people wanted the whole truth about the food they bought, not just a few details about fat, sugar and salt content.
Most importantly though, the study found that the system was unlikely to change either attitude or behaviour.
Voluntary systems are notoriously slow to get off the ground and, given all of the above, what reason would retailers and suppliers have to comply with FSA recommendations? “We do have to convince people to adopt this system,” Hutton admits. “I feel reasonably optimistic, but truthfully I don’t know. It goes back to industry responding to consumer demand. If consumers say they want this and they want it to be backed by the FSA, it is likely industry will be convinced to comply.”
Hutton already admits that if the system doesn’t take off as she intends, stronger measures may need to be adopted. Asked whether she foresees this becoming legislative at any point in the future, she says: “I would like this to be done on a voluntary basis and I hope that industry will see it as a competitive edge to meet consumer demand. But if in two or three years’ time it hasn’t been successful, then you would need to look again at how to get it taken up.”
Hutton is also adamant that it is not within her remit to educate consumers on health factors outside food, such as taking more exercise. “I am not in charge of running,” she says. “But I do recognise the food industry can’t take all the responsibility for poor health. However, how food is marketed and sold is part of the industry’s responsibility.”
This is only the beginning. The industry now has 12 weeks to feed back any comments to the FSA before it submits a final scheme to the board for approval early next year. Be sure to submit your views.
Nutritional profiling: a balancing act
>>Plus factors can offset minus points in guidelines on advertising to children
The FSA’s nutritional profiling initiative to help Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, decide what foods should and should not be advertised to children has caused just as much concern within industry as its traffic light labelling proposals.
The profiling system allocates a score to foods judged by the levels of energy, saturated fat, sugar, sodium, nuts, fruit and veg, protein and fibre they contain. If the ‘bad’ points outweigh the ‘good’ points, then that food is classified as one for which tighter advertising rules should be considered. But there are concerns this is too simplistic. Plus, can the FSA promise the data will be used only for Ofcom?
FSA chair Dame Deirdre Hutton puts the record straight: “It works on a points system - where points for positive nutrients can offset minus points for negative nutrients. And, yes, this model as it is currently designed is only for Ofcom. I can’t say that in the future it won’t be adapted according to what needs arise, but at the moment I don’t foresee anything like that.
“This system was tested on 300 foods, and was compared with the findings of 200 nutritionists, and it performed pretty well.
“No system is perfect, so we’ll need to review it after a year. It will be interesting to see how it impacts on reformulation. If a product falls just outside the agreed parameters, will it tempt suppliers to reformulate to get within them?”