Consuming issues - UK food makers unbowed on FOP labelling
The UK government's decision to back a hybrid front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling system, including colour-coding, appeared finally to have resolved a long-running debate in the UK food sector which has divided opinion for almost a decade.
But apparently not.
This morning saw the first unequivocal statement of intent on this issue by a UK government. No more consultations on what the system should be. Its position is clear. It announced the introduction of "a new, consistent system of front of pack labelling" which will be a "combination of guideline daily amounts (GDA), colour coding and high/medium/low text".
The Department of Health expects the new label to be in use by summer 2013, and while it said it would be engaging in discussions with "industry and other partners", these would be aimed at agreeing the details of the system and to ensure there would be "consistent visuals" displaying the levels of fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar, and calorie content of food products. That discussion process begins tomorrow with a meeting convened by the DH where the different stakeholders will be represented.
Campaigners and health NGOs welcomed the DH announcement, which they understandably viewed as a vindication of the position they have been advocating for some time, and the position now adopted by all of the UK's major food retailers.
Nevertheless, the debate appears set to rumble on.
Although rapidly running out of allies, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents UK food manufacturers, shows little sign of relinquishing its dogged support of a system based solely on percentage of guideline daily amounts (GDAs).
Indeed, the FDF's statement this morning made no explicit reference to the detail of the DH announcement at all. It was less of a response and more a further restatement of an increasingly entrenched and isolated position.
The FDF said the GDA-based approach "helps consumers put the food they eat in the context of their overall diet" and that its members were "committed to continuing to provide clear nutrition information to consumers".
While the FDF said it would be "actively engaged in further discussions with the Department of Health" following today's announcement, it is difficult to envisage what the basis for those discussions will be.
NGOs will be expecting that tomorrow's meeting will discuss the implementation of the new uniform hybrid system. For example, they will want to iron out the nutritional criteria for the different colours or words and what nutrient levels qualify products for a red, amber or green light. If the Government wants a consistent look, there will have to be extensive discussion going forward to agree what that look should be.
The FDF, however, appears to be envisaging a somewhat different discussion. To judge from its statement today and conversations with the organisation this morning, the FDF will arrive at the DH tomorrow with every intention of continuing its advocacy of its GDA-only approach.
What is more, when asked whether tomorrow's discussions were about deciding how the hybrid system should be developed, rather than going over the GDAs v traffic lights debate again, a DH spokesperson said "nothing was etched in stone". In the same conversation, the DH spokesperson seemed to suggest tomorrow's meeting was to discuss how to go forward with regard to the proposed hybrid system, but details of exactly what will be discussed tomorrow and how the discussions will be framed are sketchy to say the least.
Speaking to just-food, the Children's Food Campaign said it was "surprised at how little the FDF has moved and looks set to move on this".
On the face of it, some might feel the FDF's strategy may be simply to exhaust all the other parties with a display of world-beating intransigence.
One certainly can't help but admire the sheer doggedness of the UK food manufacturing sector. These are extremely powerful operators but the weight of pressure and evidence that they are now fighting against must make even this formidable caucus feel somewhat daunted.
In 2009, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) conducted the most extensive research ever undertaken into this subject and concluded that a hybrid system would be most helpful to consumers. All the major retailers in the UK now back a hybrid system. When it made its switch in August, Tesco stated its own consumer research had supported the use of colours, albeit in combination with GDAs. The DH carried out a three-month consultation, soliciting the views of all parties, and has concluded that a hybrid system is the best way forward, resulting in today's announcement.
In a further statement to just-food this morning, the FDF sought to clarify its position following the DH's announcement. "Unlike businesses operating solely or primarily in a UK context, many of our members are operating in a European or global context. The UK has led the way in developing approaches to front-of-pack labelling and we are happy to engage in discussions about greater consistency of approach in the UK and to understand the most up-to-date and robust consumer research. But decisions will be for individual companies to take also considering the added costs and complexities (which ultimately will fall on consumers)."
This may help to explain why the FDF has not taken the pragmatic view that Tesco took when it abandoned its support for a GDA-only system in August, which in turn led to Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl following suit.
But can it be that major food companies in the UK genuinely feel that they can brazen this out? Even if the Government has in place a uniform, FOP system by the summer of 2013, supported by all retailers and probably some manufacturers and endorsed by consumer and health groups, could food manufacturers and their representative body continue to plough their own furrow?
NGOs have already vowed to "name and shame" companies that do not follow the government's voluntary guidance. If Tesco felt resistance was futile, it will surely be a brave - or perhaps foolhardy - company that continues to resist.
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