The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has just published the results of a major independent evaluation of front-of-pack nutrition labelling which for some will settle the ‘traffic lights’ versus guideline daily amounts issue once and for all. Ben Cooper assesses stakeholder reaction and asks where this leaves this long-running debate.

Only the most starry-eyed of optimists would have expected the publication of the 18-month study into front-of-pack nutrition labelling commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to bring a speedy resolution to a long-running and fierce debate within the UK food sector.

With its central aim of providing “independent, robust scientific research” on consumer understanding and use of front-of-pack nutrition labelling, the study was at the very least set to make a significant contribution to the ‘traffic lights’ versus GDA (guideline daily amounts) debate. In fact, it concluded that consumers would prefer a system that incorporates the words ‘high, medium and low’, traffic light colours and percentage of GDA.

The FSA is now to proceed on the basis of those findings. In its ‘Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives’ strategy, the Government said it wanted a single approach adopted by the whole food industry based on the principles recommended by the FSA in light of the independent evaluation. So on the face of it, some form of hybrid system should be around the corner.

This is certainly the conclusion of the Children’s Food Campaign, an advocate of a traffic lights system. The campaign’s Richard Watts says the industry will now come under “massive pressure” to change from the GDA-based system, advocated by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and Tesco, to a combination approach.

“The evidence is clear and if they don’t shift then they are very clearly not taking an evidence-based approach to this issue and are pursuing a labelling system dogmatically, one assumes because it suits their profit margins rather than their customers’ health,” says Watts.

Meanwhile, consumer advocacy group Consumer Focus says a universal labelling system is crucial in the fight against obesity and it expects retailers and manufacturers to take up any FSA recommendations based on the research as soon as possible “to provide greater clarity for consumers”.

So in the face of vindicated and galvanised campaigners and a regulator holding research pointing firmly towards a hybrid system, is the FDF left with no alternative but to change tack and introduce colour coding, at least as a complement to its current GDA system? Not according to Julian Hunt, its director of communications.

“We remain opposed to colour coding,” Hunt says, adding that the organisation does not see the research “as conclusive, absolute backing for colours”. The FDF says it is “digesting” the research, and Hunt says the federation will participate in any future consultation process.

The FDF is opposed to traffic lights because it believes such a system is too simplistic and gives, in Hunt’s words, “anomalous” results. However, while these arguments are easier to use against a traffic lights-only approach, they may be a less convincing counter to a hybrid system.

Hunt says: “People want to have more specific information to make more detailed judgments and ergo it’s not rejecting GDA. You could argue that the hybrid is either the best of all worlds, or the worst of all worlds depending on your position.”

One stakeholder certain to disagree with that is supermarket group Asda which adopted a hybrid system as early as 2007. Corporate affairs director Paul Kelly says the research confirms “our belief that the dual labelling system is the simplest and clearest”. Asda has urged major food retailers and manufacturers “to end the debate, listen to the customers and commit to the dual labelling scheme”.

As it represents all major food retailers, including Tesco, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) was rather more equivocal. In a statement, BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: “UK retailers have led the way on food labelling for many years. Working closely with their customers, retailers have developed schemes which have all been shown to be effective in actually changing the food customers choose to buy. This report is only one more piece of work alongside the mass of evidence retailers already have.”

Both the BRC and FDF take the view that any change in legislation in the UK would be premature given the review of food labelling that is now going on at European level. They also both point to the fact that labelling is only one element in the battle against rising obesity, and should not be seen as a panacea. Both suggest labelling should be seen as complementary to work on product reformulation, public education, exercise and personal responsibility.

Hunt believes labelling has become the “poster child for the debate on the health of the nation”, but that food labelling tends to be read only by consumers who are interested in food and health and ignored by those who are not. Advocates of colour coding might argue that Hunt is making their case for them as traffic lights, while possibly a blunt tool, are undeniably harder to ignore.

However, the suggestion that labelling should not be seen as a cure-all is supported by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London. “We have to remember that the evidence on labels delivering the kind of big cultural and behaviour change is thin,” Lang says.

Lang adds that the FSA faced a difficult challenge. “It was trying to square a political circle: furious rejection of traffic lights by some big industry players – deep support for traffic lights from others,” he says. “The FSA’s verdict in a sense gives a green light to everyone’s positions. Alas, only time will tell if consumers find the composite and more complex labels of any value.”

However, as both the BRC and FDF have pointed out, any immediate change to FSA guidelines or new advice to ministers would have to, at the very least, take into account what is going on in Europe. The problem here is that European progress on labelling is some way behind the UK. The earliest we are likely to see any firm direction on this from the EU is the middle or the end of next year.

According to the FDF, a change of labelling across the entire food sector would mean as much as GBP500m in additional costs for the industry. He therefore believes it is vital that changes are not made now that would be superseded by European regulation, which some expect will err towards GDA rather than a hybrid system.

The FDF also believes the likely change of government in the UK next year may have a bearing on proceedings. However, while the Conservative party, which will in all probability take power in a general election next year, has voiced opposition to a simple traffic lights system, it has backed a hybrid approach.

The European situation is a more difficult dilemma for the FSA, however, and does have a bearing on what it does next. An FSA spokesperson told just-food: “We are aware of what’s going on in Europe. The EU discussions are at an early stage still, and we’re involved in those negotiations and we’ll share this research.”

The spokesperson would not say what the next steps are likely to be, other than to confirm that a consultation was one possibility. The findings will be discussed at the next FSA board meeting, which takes place tomorrow (12 May). Some form of announcement is expected following that meeting.

So in spite of the clarity that the research has apparently provided, the FSA appears only to face a further dilemma. In the words of Sue Duncan, chair of the Project Management Panel, the independent group of experts which carried out the research, the FSA now has “the most comprehensive and robust evaluation of front-of-pack (FOP) signpost labelling published in the UK and internationally to date” and “a firm foundation for the FSA and other stakeholders on which to base future policy decisions on FOP labelling”. But it may be prevented from advocating firm policy action because the UK has to slow down on this issue to allow Europe to catch up.