France's new health bill, which subject to two further votes could be ratified later this year, includes provision for a voluntary colour-coded front-of-pack nutritional labelling scheme. The debate this has sparked, Ben Cooper writes, mirrors closely that seen in the UK, with food manufacturers sternly opposed to the use of colours.

In the words of the great Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again. The legendary baseball player was, strangely enough, not referring to front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional food labelling. However, events this week in France underline the striking similarities between the debate on the subject in the country and that which preceded the introduction of a uniform FOP labelling scheme on the other side of the English Channel in 2013.

On Tuesday (14 April), France's new health law was passed in the National Assembly by 311 votes to 241. The bill includes, amongst a raft of preventive health measures aimed at reducing public healthcare costs, the creation of a uniform, voluntary FOP food nutritional labelling system. It will now go before the Senate before returning to the lower house for a final vote, potentially becoming law as early as this summer.

Just as in the UK, the French scheme will be voluntary as under EU regulations member states cannot introduce a mandatory FOP scheme.

The health bill states food is "a major determinant of health", while referring to dietary links to cancers and stroke, as well as pointing to the higher levels of childhood obesity among lower income families. The bill outlines the principle of a "graphic representation" of nutritional information with a logo and a "recognisable colour code".

The precise features and look of the scheme are therefore yet to be finalised. Last month, Marisol Touraine, France's Minister for Health, Social Affairs and Women's Rights, convened a multi-stakeholder working group, including retailers, manufacturers, consumer groups and scientists, which the French government hopes will arrive at a "common and shared solution". Among the details being discussed are the shape of the symbols and, interestingly, whether red should be included as a colour.

When considering the search for that consensus, the parallels with the protracted debate over FOP labelling in the UK are particularly striking and significant. Like their UK counterparts, French food retailers have been more progressive on the issue, while food manufacturers have remained opposed to the use of colours they feel simplistically demonise foods that can, if consumed responsibly, be part of a balanced diet.

In the bill itself, the French government states the FOP labelling provision is "popular with consumer representatives and professionals in public health", correctly making no claim of popularity with manufacturers.

The French food manufacturers' trade body, Association Nationale des Industries Alimentaires (ANIA), denounced the working group as a "sham", restating its opposition to the imposition of a "simplistic and stigmatising" labelling scheme.

Olivier Andrault, food officer at French consumer advocacy group UFC-Que Choisir, believes the manufacturers' position has been "quite negative" and "very different" from that of the retailers. Underlining this view and mirroring the lead taken by a number of UK supermarket chains, French retailer Carrefour introduced its own colour-coded FOP scheme late last year.

Last month, French food retail association La Fédération du Commerce et de la Distribution (FCD) launched a very similar scheme for its members, again demonstrating the engagement of the retail sector. Andrault sees the launch of the FCD scheme as "very good news".

By contrast, ten days after the FCD launched its scheme, ANIA issued a strongly worded communiqué stating the stakeholder meeting Minister Touraine had convened "at the last minute" showed "once again" the Government's "total lack of consideration for the leading industrial sector in France".

That French food manufacturers feel they have not been adequately consulted or considered could yet be telling. In the first place, while government ownership of a voluntary measure gives it more bite than pure self-regulation, broad-based support for such soft regulation is critical in gaining widespread uptake. Some major food manufacturers in the UK have refused to adopt the official UK FOP scheme.

Furthermore, food manufacturers in the UK – albeit in alliance with Tesco, the country's largest food retailer – successfully stalled the launch of traffic light labelling for years. According to FoodDrinkEurope data, France boasts the second-largest food and drinks sector in the EU, not far behind Germany which has around a 30% larger population. To say it is a powerful lobby would not do justice to its political clout. Food manufacturers will certainly continue to lobby against the labelling scheme as the Health Bill moves on to the Senate.

Andrault concedes that Tuesday's vote was "just a first step" and getting the scheme through the Senate "might be more difficult" but says he "can't imagine" the Government would now "go backwards". He also predicts that, as happened in the UK, some food manufacturers will begin to come out in support of the scheme. The food industry should not be viewed as a "monolith", he tells just-food, adding the position voiced by ANIA represents "the most basic common position".

While colour coding has proved the major sticking-point in both France and the UK, there is one key difference between the likely French scheme and that now running in the UK. The idea in France is that, rather than bearing multiple traffic lights for different nutrients of concern, the French FOP label will have just one, with the colour determined by the overall nutritional profile.

The Carrefour scheme also includes text which, according to the nutritional profile denoted by the colour, gives a recommendation of how often the product might be consumed as part of a sensible diet. The inclusion of recommendations of numerical frequency of consumption has been more controversial and health campaigners are keen that in any finalised scheme such advice should be phrased in more general terms, such as "consume occasionally".

Supporters of having just a single colour believe it reduces the risk of consumers being confused by contradictory information. However, UK food manufacturers' opposition to multiple traffic lights focused on the contention that they represent a crude means of valorising nutritional content. It could be said that a single colour, in spite of the clarity it may provide to consumers, is an even blunter instrument.

This distinction, however, may be valuable to researchers. Interestingly, this pivotal moment in the French debate coincides with the publication of new research into FOP nutritional labelling. Last month, a group of researchers at the University of Bonn published research which analysed consumer reactions to the use of colours versus a numerical or percentage representation of nutritional content while the subjects were lying in an MRI scanner. While this study may not score highly in terms of replicating the shopping experience, its findings appear to confirm the widely held view among health professionals that colour coding is more effective in terms of influencing behaviour.

Meanwhile, behavioural scientists at the University of Cambridge have been looking at the relative potency of the use of colours compared with emoticons on nutritional labels on snacks. A study found emoticon labels yielded stronger effects on perceptions of taste and healthiness of snacks than colour labels.

There is clearly more to be learned about how consumers react to nutritional labelling and the advent and study of a new and distinct scheme in practice may have value beyond what it achieves in reducing diet-related health problems in France.