Consumer advocates support traffic lights

Consumer advocates support traffic lights

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has revised its recommendations on food labelling to a position which is far more acceptable to industry. Accused of kowtowing by campaigners, the FSA believes it has taken a pragmatic course of action allowing it keep industry committed to what will be voluntary measures. Ben Cooper reports.

Consultation periods are intended to bring stakeholders together, listen to concerns about proposed policy and if possible find consensus. If that was the objective of the consultation period following the publication by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) of research and recommendations on front-of-pack (FOP) labelling, it has failed fairly spectacularly.

The announcement, ratified by the FSA Board last week, that the Agency is backing a ‘flexible’ approach to labelling, where GDA (guideline daily amounts) would be supported with either text or traffic lights has dismayed campaigners. And underlining how stakeholder opinion remains polarised, industry advocates have welcomed the FSA’s change of position.

Last May, the FSA published some of the most extensive research ever carried out into this issue, which it said concluded that consumers favoured a single, unified system incorporating all three elements. It said last year that it would “take forward the findings, which show that shoppers would benefit from a single FOP scheme that includes the words ‘high, medium and low’, traffic light colours and percentage of Guideline Daily Amount”.

Whatever the new FSA position may be, a ‘flexible’ system is by definition not unified and what appeared to be a firm commitment to a three-pronged system incorporating traffic lights has been replaced by an either/or option.

The FSA maintains that its position has been misrepresented by campaigners and press. Talk of a ‘climbdown’ by a public health body in response to industry pressure makes for a compelling news story. And arguably the FSA’s contention that it remains committed to a uniformed system involving all three elements is less easy to square with events.

For that commitment, one has to look at the precise wording in the FSA Board Paper published on 10 March which states that ‘provision of the interpretive elements found by the independent FOP evaluation research to aid the understanding and use of the nutritional information provided within the FOP label could be achieved by applying two of the three elements initially but incorporating all three elements over time’.

In the same document, it states that there can be ‘flexibility in presentation’ provided the label design ‘does not mislead or confuse the consumer’.

Speaking to just-food, an FSA spokesperson reiterated the commitment to strive for the adoption of a three-element system over time. He said the FSA Board had been “quite clear” that it wanted one scheme incorporating all three elements. “That is our ultimate goal and that stands. There’s no change there. That’s still our policy and what we’re recommending.”

He pointed out that these were always designed to be voluntary measures. He said the Agency was not in a position to mandate on the issue, given that European law has precedence, a dilemma underlined by developments in the European Parliament only this week.

He said the FSA had taken account of the fact that different parts of the industry were at “different places” and “a staged approach” would allow it “to take industry with us”. Stressing that the Agency would continue to push towards the voluntary use of all three elements over time, he said it had not backed down, “but was working with the market and working with what’s realistic to get to our ultimate goal.”

But campaigners believe the FSA has been far too swayed by industry views. Describing the change of view at the FSA as “a political fix”, Richard Watts, campaigns director at food pressure group Sustain, said there was widespread disappointment among campaigners that the FSA had “disregarded its own evidence on firstly the importance of colour-coding and secondly the importance of a single scheme”.

The FSA’s justification that it is being pragmatic appears to cut little ice. “The FSA, rightly, prides itself on being an evidence-based organisation,” says Christine Haigh, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign. “So it is doubly disappointing that they are willing to go against the results of their own research, which clearly shows traffic light colours are the best way to help people make healthy choices.”

A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation told just-food she was pleased that the FSA had ‘listened to the concerns of our members’.

The concern among campaigners is that the FDF’s and Tesco’s position on a monochrome GDA-based system has been vindicated by the FSA and gaining further progress towards the voluntary use of a system involving all three elements will now be very hard.

There is no timeframe for further negotiations with industry, and the FSA spokesperson confirmed that no date had been set for the current policy to be reviewed.

For its part the FDF seemed to welcome further collaboration and discussion with the FSA, but conspicuously made no mention whatsoever of a three-element system or traffic lights.

“We look forward to having constructive dialogue with Government and the Agency about the voluntary work industry is going to do to improve the nutrition information provided on packs,” FDF communications director Julian Hunt said. “Our members have long supported a GDA approach to labelling as we feel this is helping the food literacy of consumers.  The real challenge is to understand the future regulatory climate for labelling which will be decided by the European institutions – which are currently negotiating food information regulation for the EU.”

The FSA said it would now be aiming to drive the move for the three-element approach it still says is the ideal through consumer pressure.

In a recent interview with EU Food Law Weekly, FSA chief executive Tim Smith said: “In the end what is going to drive UK retailers and manufacturers is consumer demand.” He added that the FSA is to do more work on getting the public to demand the single scheme, to make sure that consumers can make their views known.

However, Watts believes the FSA should have been more aggressive at publicly promoting its contention that all three elements were the ideal from the outset. He told just-food the Agency had been ‘too passive’ on the issue since its research was first published last May.

Perhaps it was felt that the consultation period was not an appropriate time for such campaigning directly to consumers. But given that it seemed so committed to the use of all three elements last year it is not hard to see why it has been accused of rolling over the food industry.