May contain artificial colours: Part II

misleading food label

misleading food label (Photo credit: touring_fishman)

Today the Department of Health announced that it has come to a voluntary agreement with the food industry to standardise front-of-pack nutritional labelling. The major supermarkets have all agreed to implement the change by summer 2013. The move has been welcomed as a victory for health campaigners, albeit years later than it could have been enforced through regulation. And without regulation, there is scope for the labelling not being adopted universally outside of supermarket own brands – independent food manufacturers aren’t as committed to the plan.

According to Public Health Minister Anna Soubry: “The UK already has the largest number of products with front-of-pack labels in Europe, but research has shown that consumers get confused by the wide variety of labels used.” The research in question was conducted by the Food Standards Authority, and published in May 2009, but the FSA’s unequivocal advice to make the traffic light system mandatory was ignored until now.

Although it is years after the report made the recommendation, the agreed labelling system will be the one recommended by the report – a combination of traffic-light colours, text indicating high, medium or low levels of nutrients, and % GDA. This combination was one of the most popular systems, and was understood by 70% of consumers tested in the study – a result replicated in a poll launched by The Guardian today, with 71% of respondents so far finding traffic light labelling useful. As such this is an encouraging example of evidence-based policy, which remains the exception rather than the rule in policymaking.

The 70% comprehension rate does however show that there is still work to be done in educating consumers in nutrition. Happily, a survey headlined “Many consumers find traffic lights confusing” on a food industry website found that just 19% of consumers found traffic light labels confusing – implying that an even greater proportion of consumers understood the labels than in the FSA study.

An article on another industry website, following the argument that the traffic light system demonises certain foods, slathers on the nonsense more liberally:

Whole milk and cheese are high in saturated fat and would be labelled red to point this out. Processed meat such as sausages and bacon will also carry a red label, reflecting their salt and fat content.

Industry experts worried that the hybrid labels did not point out that these products are essential as part of a healthy balanced diet.”

Surely the discovery that a healthy balanced diet is impossible for millions of vegetarians, vegans and people in certain religions deserves a wider press. While this dictate can be taken with a truckload of low-sodium salt, a much more sophisticated food-labelling deception continues to mislead consumers.

I wrote last year about the fake traffic lights that Tesco uses in its food labelling system. This was found in the FSA report to lead some consumers to think that the cool colours (blue or green) used on the scheme indicate that products are low in these nutrients – namely fat, saturated fat and calories. Morrisons’ monochrome pale blue scheme was also found to give a false impression of health.

Unsurprisingly, Tesco and Morrisons were the last of the major supermarkets to sign up to the standardised labelling – implying that they have the most to lose from the change. The fact that they have been allowed to mislead consumers for years is a worrying sign for the ongoing ‘voluntary relationship’ between government and the food industry. Without regulation, the food industry can develop ways of influencing  consumers’ decisions to their own ends and to the detriment of public health. The choice isn’t between freedom of choice and a nanny state; it’s between being influenced by either those seeking to maximise profit or those seeking to improve public health.

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