Blog: Dean BestUK nutrition labels highlight industry split

Dean Best | 19 June 2013

Today, the UK government revealed which companies had signed up to a new front-of-pack nutrition label. However, while the likes of Mars, PepsiCo and Premier Foods will slap the label on their products, others, including Kellogg and Unilever, have decided against it. And so the "consistency" trumpeted by the Government is, for now, only going so far.

How to present the nutritional content on food packs has long been a point of fierce debate. In the UK, companies like Sainsbury's and McCain Foods stood out as companies that agreed with campaigners that believed traffic lights would help consumers in their decisions over what to buy. Much of the rest of the industry stood firm against the use of red, amber and green. Too simplistic, they cried.

Today's announcement shows how far the industry has moved towards the view of campaigners in the last year. In August, Tesco, which accounts for around 30% of UK grocery sales made a surprise U-turn and said it would use traffic-light labels. Other retailers followed. Two months later, the Government said it would recommended the use of a "hybrid" label that included those traffic lights.

Fast-forward to today and we have the names of over 20 retailers and manufacturers that will use the new label. For those that signed up, consistency seemed to be the key, rather than an all-out and sudden embrace of traffic lights.

"The difference between manufacturer and retailer labelling schemes has been potentially confusing for consumers," Premier Foods boss Gavin Darby said.

"We ... recognise that consistency increases consumers' motivation to use front-of-pack information," noted Nestle.

However, as even the UK government admitted, after accounting for those that have joined up to the initiative, we are still left with companies representing around 40% of food sold in the country opting against using the label.

Those that replied to requests for comment from us said they would be "reviewing" the details of the label and its impact on shoppers, although, with companies being consulted throughout the process, one could argue why they still need to review the details of the label. Incidentally, Nestle, which will use the label on products made by its "fully-owned" businesses in the UK, said its breakfast cereal venture with General Mills (which has decided not to use the new label) was still reviewing the details.

>The criteria behind the new labels also have the potential to cause furrowed brows among some in the industry. For example, a product that contains 1.8g of salt per portion will no receive a red light, compared to 2.4g previously.

There is no doubt today's announcement represents progress from the industry towards using nutrition information in such a way that has been demanded by campaigners and is more easily understood by consumers.

However, not everyone has endorsed the labels and their application, as well as the new criteria behind them, will not be welcomed by all in the industry.

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