So will it or won’t it? After months of delay, the government is finally poised to publish its Public Health White Paper and put an end to the speculation over traffic-light labelling.
The Grocer has argued throughout its Junk the Spin campaign that such a system would demonise foods such as cheese, bacon and oily fish. But with the sudden groundswell of support for the scheme from Which?, formerly the Consumers’ Association, and the National Consumer Council, fears have mounted that the tide is now turning in favour of the controversial scheme.
On the face of it, news that three of the five labelling systems being assessed by the Food Standards Agency “could be described as traffic-light systems” according to Gill Fine, its new director of consumer choice and dietary health, would seem to further stoke these fears.
But, she insists in an exclusive interview, the agency would only back such a system if research demonstrated it actually worked and it had consulted with all the key stakeholders including the food and drink industry.
Fine’s decision to join the FSA at the height of the health debate showed good timing in more ways than one. She has also found herself at the helm of a completely new group within the agency, which was restructured two months ago to reflect its decision to broaden its focus to diet and nutrition.
Five weeks into the job, she’s clearly enjoying the challenge. “It’s a good time to be joining because of the new strategy plan. My background is public health nutritionist and having been at Sainsbury for nine and a half years, I wanted to be part of an organisation that puts nutrition at the core of what it does.”
Fine is confident that the heightened focus on health during the past two years is beginning to have a positive impact. “People are more aware they can do something about their diet,” she says. “The message about fruit and veg is getting across as is the message that they can read labels without being scared. I think there’s a genuine interest from consumers.”
The agency’s efforts to raise public awareness through high-profile advertising campaigns are helping, such as the recent salt reduction campaign aimed at consumers and featuring Sid the Slug. However, says Fine, conceding that the agency has not always been as effective as it could have been in conveying the message, “a lot of work needs to be done”.
She defines her role as bringing “an insight into the issues” and “the recognition that there’s no single answer” to the nation’s obesity problems, as well as to ensure that “practical, deliverable solutions” are implemented.
To that end, the agency has been working on two key pieces of research: one in the area of signposting and more specifically nutrition labelling, and the other in nutrient profiling. Of the former, she says: “It’s about understanding how to make labelling easier for the consumer to understand, particularly on front of pack.”
She confirms that the agency is now assessing five different labelling systems, three that are colour-coded and “could be described as traffic-light systems”, one that is a GDA-based system and another along the lines of the healthier choice formats used by Sainsbury and Tesco with Be Good to Yourself and HealthyLiving respectively. The industry backs the IGD's GDA-based labelling scheme.
“We are trialling the principles,” she says. “We’re an evidence-based organisation and one of the things we’ve tried to do is identify what actually works for the consumer. Does it make it easier for the consumer to make healthier choices? We’ll be discussing the findings with stakeholders, including industry, very shortly.”
Once the first stage of identifying what consumers like and need is complete, the agency will begin to assess what works in practice. Acknowledging concerns that certain foods could be demonised by a traffic-light system, she agrees that some products will be trickier to label fairly, but says that nutrient profiling could help.
In parallel with its signposting research, the agency has funded a study to develop a scheme that takes account of the balance of micro and macro-nutrients in foods and identify the positive contribution to the diet of foods such as cheese and dried fruit, as well as their fat, salt or sugar content. The findings could be used to inform and underpin a traffic-light system, she suggests, though the agency is also looking at wider applications.
As to whether the scheme should be mandatory rather than voluntary, it is too early to call, she says: “We are currently looking at a voluntary scheme, but it will depend on the results. There’s quite a bit of legislative activity in Brussels so if there is scope for a scheme across Europe, that could be an opportunity. Let’s wait until everyone has seen the formats.”
She gives short shrift to suggestions that recent OFT warnings to leading industry bodies that voluntary codes could fall foul of competition law represent a challenge to the agency’s powers. Referring to the voluntary code on water reduction in meat that sparked the debate, she says: “We haven’t had any direct communication with the OFT about this, but from general conversations, it would seem that it’s down to individual cases as to how far that line goes,” she says, stressing: “It’s about partnership.”
That goes for the food and drink industry too. Public health minister Melanie Johnson infuriated leading supermarkets by demanding they submit highly detailed salt reduction plans. Fine, however, is keen to smooth ruffled feathers and emphasise the positive work that the industry has done to address the health agenda.
“I’ve been really pleased with the level of support for implementing salt reduction policies at a pace that also suits their agenda. The industry is already two thirds of the way towards meeting the agency’s 2006 targets.”
However, she adds: “Whether we can reach the further target by 2010 is more of a challenge. While there’s been some really good work done by parts of the food chain, there’s a lot more that can be done.”
Salt reduction is not the only challenge. There has been widespread speculation that sugar is next on the agency’s hit list. But Fine reveals that it plans to tackle saturated fats first.
“There are two key targets in our strategic plan: one for salt and one for saturated fats,” she confirms, again praising the progress made by the industry to bring total fat content down. Calorie and sugar content will come under scrutiny only within the agency’s wider remit to look at product composition.
Meanwhile, the agency remains firm in its stance on advertising to children. “The agency view is informed by the Hastings Review, which indicated that promotional activity does affect children - and that remains the agency view.”
As for suggestions of a falling out between the FSA and the Department of Health over Johnson’s criticism of the food and drink industry’s efforts, Fine declines to comment but insists that despite the agency’s increased focus on diet and health, there is no friction between the two.
“We have a clear remit. We are responsible for food safety and food standards. They are responsible for health,” she says. “But we have a shared responsibility for diet and nutrition and part of our role is to advise them on that.”
The good news is that in Fine is a friendly face at the agency, someone who understands the food and drink industry’s concerns first-hand. However, as she makes clear, she is no soft touch. If the government gives traffic lights the green light and the research supports such a move, the much-feared system could yet become a reality.