Thousands of food and drink products that currently display an amber traffic light label for salt content could soon have to switch to red under government plans to lower the thresholds for its new front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme.

The move, which industry sources said had left them “shocked”, will see previous FSA guidelines revised to include stricter limits for the retailers and suppliers participating in the new universal labelling scheme, which was due to be rubberstamped by the Department of health yesterday.

The DH, which unveiled its plans behind closed doors with retailers and suppliers last week, has already persuaded the major supermarkets to adopt the new scheme, but insiders warned that the clampdown could make it even more difficult to persuade suppliers to sign up.

The new threshold means a product will have to carry a red light if it contains more than 1.8g of salt per portion - that’s 25% less than the original 2.4g threshold that the DH had previously indicated it would follow.

Front of pack: the DH says…

  • No ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ wording
  • Guideline Daily Amounts to be renamed Reference Intake
  • No more category-specific thresholds for products such as cheese
  • New Change4life campaign to explain the system
  • kilojoules (KJ) as well as kilocalories (kcal) to be stated

Recent British Medical Journal research suggested more than one in 10 own-label ready meals would have got a red light under the current guidelines, with a further 60% getting amber. Those with red lights will now be much higher, with a snapshot survey conducted by The Grocer identifying a raft of own-label ready meals and sandwiches, many billed as healthy, that will have go from amber to red.

“We’re still getting over the shock,” said one senior retail source. “There will be hundreds if not thousands more products that are going to feature red lights. Ready meals and sandwiches are going to be hardest hit.”

The DH has said it is down to the industry to decide which categories could remain exempt from the new front-of-pack scheme, which is set to be a hybrid of traffic lights and GDAs.

The decision to lower the salt threshold so significantly made it more likely whole sectors, such as cheese, would now opt out, sources said. They also warned of the potential chaos sudden reclassifications would cause.

“It’s not going to be possible for retailers to just sweep these products off the shelves,” said the retail source. “There is probably going to be a period when they are going to co-exist on the shelves.”