Faced with a clamour to do something about unhealthy eating, five big food manufacturers in the UK have announced a plan for front-of-pack nutrition labelling. The food industry is selling the move as good news for health conscious consumers, but not everyone's happy. Chris Lyddon reports.

Danone, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestlé and PepsiCo, whose brands include Actimel, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Dairylea, KitKat and Walkers crisps, are to put Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) information on front of pack, showing the amount of calories, sugar, fat, saturates and salt per portion.

"It is a very open and honest move that they are making," Jane Holdsworth, the former corporate affairs director of PepsiCo, now managing director of marketing consultancy Sponsus, who was responsible for co-ordinating the joint approach, told just-food.

With this announcement, the companies have effectively pre-empted the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) own "traffic light" system, which was unveiled in November and is the subject of a consultation process with industry stakeholders. The FSA gave only a qualified welcome to the five companies' initiative.

"It is encouraging that this group of manufacturers are taking seriously the need to improve food labelling," an FSA spokesperson said. "However, it is important that we all work together to deliver a scheme which works for consumers across the whole food industry."

More strident criticism has come from other quarters. The National Consumer Council (NCC) condemned the plan. "The timing of this suggests this is a cynical move to derail the Food Standards Agency's steady progress towards an industry-wide agreement on front-of-pack food labelling," said NCC chief executive Ed Mayo. "The decision by these food companies to go their own way is disappointing. It will cause confusion for consumers. People need the entire food industry - manufacturers and retailers - to adopt a single, consistent labelling scheme to help make healthy choices, easy choices."

Which?, the organisation formerly known as the Consumers' Association, said it had written to the five companies' chief executives asking them to reconsider. "Last week's announcement by Danone, Kellogg's, Nestlé, Kraft and Pepsico undermines the national scheme proposed by the Food Standards Agency," said Sue Davies, chief policy advisor at Which?. "The FSA's research showed that the multiple traffic light format is the best way of helping consumers make healthier choices, simply and easily."

But the industry's trade association, the Food and Drink Federation, has roundly rejected the FSA's proposed system. "Any traffic light type labelling scheme aimed at distinguishing certain nutrients in a food as high, medium or low is simplistic and potentially misleading to consumers," said FDF deputy director general Martin Paterson. "Such schemes do not offer additional information to consumers about what is in their food nor do they provide a guide to eating a balanced diet."

Jane Holdsworth said the industry had been looking hard at labelling. "We've developed quite a lot of insight into what works and what doesn't work with consumers," she said. "The consensus has developed that guideline daily amounts are really helpful for consumers."

She explained that after informal contacts, the five manufacturers came together in October of last year. "It seemed a natural step to move to a common scheme around GDAs," Holdsworth said. "Our belief is that by having GDAs on front of pack it is giving people a choice. They can compare within categories." The five had felt that the FSA's system was too simplistic.

Holdsworth also stressed that by taking action now, the five were taking steps well before any FSA scheme could be put into operation. "The first product will be on shelf in April," she said. "This scheme would bring front-of-pack labelling to consumers as early as the spring which I think is a fantastic step forward."

However, not every food company agrees. Fastfood chain Fresh Italy has already adopted the FSA scheme. "We adopted a single traffic light system at the moment it came out," the company's founder and managing director Tom Allchurch told just-food.

He questions the motives of the five big companies. "They want to bounce as many of the food companies and retailers into their direction as possible, in essence so that it would become a fait accompli, so that the system they don't want to see happening won't happen," he said. "The system they don't want to see happening is colour-coding and traffic lights.

"Some parts of the food industry are very reluctant to take responsibility for their role in the problems we have in relation to health and diet," Allchurch continued. "If there's going to be an improvement in this situation part of the solution is going to be labelling. For labelling to work it has got to be strong and clear and everybody has got to do it in the same way."

Allchurch was not impressed with the system proposed by the five companies. "No consumer would be able to figure that out," he said. "Not even the people proposing that mechanism could figure it out themselves. People don't understand it and they don't have time."

He accused the five companies of coming up with a system designed to limit the effect on their sales. However, Allchurch and other critics contend that if the labelling system does not significantly change buying habits, thereby affecting food companies' sales, it has essentially failed in its primary purpose. Allchurch contrasted this with the experience at Fresh Italy. "Our sales have gone up to the healthier products and across the range," he said. "Consumers want to be given simple information that allows them to make the choices."

However, Jane Holdsworth said that she felt the GDA-based system would affect sales. "Undoubtedly it will affect the choices that consumers make," she said. "They'll have more information to make the right choices."