Addressing the National Federation of Women's Institutes today (7 June), Dame Deirdre Hutton outlined the Food Standards Agency's approach to diet and nutrition, highlighting in particular the role of the food industry and retailers in improving the health of the nation.

The obesity epidemic, strokes, cancer, heart disease and the shorter average life-span of those in lower income brackets, whose diet tends to be poorer, is the consequence of a lack of understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet, Hutton said.

"Eating well is easy," Hutton continued, "if you know what to look for in the shops, how to read a label, and how to cook. But if you don't, it's virtually impossible."

The Food Standards Agency has identified three ways that the UK's diet can be improved: by educating people about what constitutes a healthy diet, making food labelling clear and simple and by ensuring that foods, particularly convenience and processed foods, are healthier.

The Agency has set the target of significantly reducing the UK's average salt intake. "We want to get people eating no more than 6g a day by 2010," Hutton said. "I am a great believer in the British food industry and its ability to hit targets. But we as consumers have to keep … demanding lower salt foods, and we have to keep buying the lower salt versions when they are offered to us. That is the way to drive the food industry in a healthier direction."

Hutton went on to discuss the benefits FSA's traffic lights labelling scheme, which, she said, is easily understood and widely accepted by consumers, according to research conducted by the Agency.

Signpost labelling has already been adopted by Sainsbury's and Waitrose and will be implemented at Asda. However, it has been rejected by Tesco, who has created its own front-of-pack labelling system, and five of the world's largest food companies - Danone, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestlé and PepsiCo - who have banded together to develop a labelling strategy of thier own.

"It is good news to see progress on front-of-pack labelling - given the objections there were to it only a year or two ago. But you have to wonder why these companies are choosing to ignore the weight of evidence [demonstrating the effectiveness of the traffic lights scheme] and not use traffic light colours in their schemes?"