Share this article

The Co-operative Group, a UK supermarket chain, has introduced a new labelling scheme that will see it slap warning labels on branded products if they are high in calories, fat or salt. Dave Robertson investigates an initiative that has got manufacturers rattled.

This controversial move is the latest in a long-running campaign spearheaded by the British Government to improve the country’s diet. So far, this campaign has seen manufacturers of high salt and fat content products publicly shamed by the Government and politicians are now threatening to introduce legislation that will penalise these companies if they do not make their products healthier.

However, the Co-op’s decision last week [21st September] to put warning stickers on branded products is particularly significant as it marks the first major attempt by a retailer to adopt the Government’s agenda.

Kellogg’s, Nestlé in the frame

The Co-op will place “high”, “medium” and “low” shelf labels on 300 branded products from Kellogg’s Cornflakes to Nestlé Shreddies. For example Kellogg’s Cornflakes will have a high salt warning because it contains 2.4g of salt per 100g and a low fat label because it contains only 0.9g of fat per 100g.

Lloyd Grossman Green Thai Curry Sauce will have high salt and high fat warnings (1.5g/100g salt and 6.4g/100g fat).

The Co-op has been running the high-low labelling concept on its own-brand products in one form or another since 1986. However, it will now become the first UK supermarket to regularly add labelling to branded products.

Initially this will be run as a trial in ten supermarkets in locations like London and Glasgow. The Co-op will track consumer reaction using exit polls and sales data and if it proves popular the Co-op expects to roll out the system to all its 1,600 stores.

No comment from “furious” brand owners

Food manufacturers have so far refused to comment on the Co-op’s move and when the retailer wrote to suppliers to tell them of the trial it received no replies. However, sources in the industry admit that a number of companies are furious that the Co-op is tampering with their valuable brands. They argue that products already contain nutritional information and sales could be hit by placing a “high” label on the shelf.

Michelle Vernon, a spokeswoman for the Co-op, said: “We are not saying these products are good or bad for you. This is about the customer being able to balance their shopping so if they buy one product that is high in salt they may wish to choose another that is marked low.”

A spokeswoman for Kellogg’s, one of the companies that will have its products labelled by the Co-op, refused to be drawn on whether the company was happy with the trial, stating that they would “wait with interest” for the results.

Tense times

The Co-op’s trial comes at a time of considerable tension between the food industry and the British Government. The Department of Health believes that reducing the fat and salt content in processed foods as well as educating the public on the role of calories will slow the obesity and heart disease epidemic.

Salt has been the highest profile “bad ingredient” in recent months after the health minister Melanie Johnson demanded that retailers and manufacturers come up with ideas for reducing salt content. Last year the Government told the food industry to develop proposals to reduce salt content from an average of 11g per day per person to 6g.

Johnson was unhappy with the responses she got and issued a public letter demanding new proposals, which were to be submitted two weeks ago. This prompted outrage from a number of major retailers and manufacturers.

Backlash on salt

Sainsbury’s, one of the giants of the UK food industry, even refused to comply and the Salt Manufacturer’s Association (SMA) has issued a formal complaint about a new £4m (US$7.2m) Government advertising scheme warning of the dangers of too much salt consumption.

The position of the Salt Manufacturer’s Association, as set out in its response to a report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, is that: “There is no consensus that salt causes high blood pressure or that reducing salt intake for the population as a whole is either effective, or safe.” But it is becoming increasingly clear that the SMA and the food industry in general is out of step with public thinking.

Consumers have become used to hearing industry, whether tobacco or fastfood or the supporters of genetic modification, rubbishing warnings about their products and many people simply do not believe them. In a recent BBC poll 80% of people said they wanted the Government to take action and restrict the use of salt in food.

Consumers are also becoming aware that not all the uses of salt in food are linked with health benefits. For example, salt is used in meat to keep the product hydrated, which increases its weight and makes it look plumper – with obvious commercial benefits. This inevitably breeds consumer cynicism.

Commercial opportunity

As a result a new commercial opportunity has arisen, and the Co-op has leapt on it: if consumers are becoming more salt/fat/calorie aware it makes sense for retailers to provide them with clear information on which products are healthier for them.
This is the exact same trend that ruled out any future for GM crops in the UK for the foreseeable future.
The Co-op’s Michelle Vernon explained: “To be a successful supermarket it makes sense to give consumers what they want and we believe they want to make healthier choices. It is not just about doing it because the Government says it is good.”

Kellogg’s too is addressing this trend and is in the final stages of developing new labelling for its products. These labels will contain information on how to lead a healthy lifestyle, focusing on daily averages in particular. These new labels will take up about a third of the space on the back of a typical cereal packet and will be in addition to standard nutritional panels.

Kellogg’s also says it is planning to make an announcement in the near future about the salt content of its products, which almost certainly means a commitment to reduce salt levels.

The British Government has been rattling its sabre demanding action from the food industry to make products healthier but, as usual, it will be consumer pressure that really makes the difference. It is hard to see how this will not lead to more labelling and lower fat and salt products in future.