The food industry will welcome the multi-stranded and inclusive approach taken by the UK government in its anti-obesity strategy, unveiled yesterday (23 January). But, Ben Cooper writes, the Government’s insistence that differences among retailers and food producers over nutritional labelling are resolved could bring the debate over the issue to a head.

The tenor of the UK government’s anti-obesity strategy, unveiled yesterday (23 January), will have pleased many in the food industry. The tone was conciliatory and inclusive, the Government once again showing its willingness to involve the industry in finding solutions and back voluntary initiatives.

There was an abiding sense that blame was not being placed solely on the food industry, with emphasis on areas such as encouraging exercise, infrastructure solutions to foster more active lifestyles and dietary education. This holistic, multi-stranded outlook, betraying a strong influence from the Foresight Report published last year, is precisely what the industry would want to see.

But an administration that has strived to present a business-friendly image hinted strongly that it may get tough in one policy area deemed crucial in the fight against obesity which also has significant commercial implications for food producers and retailers – nutritional labelling.

The strategy includes proposals to develop “a single, simple and effective approach to food labelling”, indicating that the Government is unhappy that retailers and producers cannot agree on the best labelling system, with some favouring the colour-coded “Traffic Lights” format, others using the GDA (guideline daily amounts) system, and one food retailer using a hybrid form.

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“The problem is there are three systems,” Health Secretary Alan Johnson said yesterday on the BBC. “We are saying we want to work with the industry and have an independent review by experts to see which of these three systems is the most effective. Then we hope that we can convince the industry to go for one system.”

While some observers are convinced the Government favours a colour-coded system, not least because the traffic lights system is advocated by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), this has not been made explicit. Officially the strategy is to unite behind what is determined to be the most effective system, which focuses attention on research being conducted by the FSA.

While the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food producers, has held a firm stance on GDA, it has backed the FSA research and agreed to review its opinions in the light of those findings, due by the end of the year. “We have agreed to work with the FSA to carry out research to determine which labelling formats are helping to inform shoppers about the food they choose,” says FDF spokesperson Christine Welberry.

As to whether pressure on the industry to switch to some form of colour-coded format may increase following publication of the strategy, the FDF remains guarded. When asked if it was open to the idea that there might be a better system than GDA, Welberry said the FDF was “open to learning from what the research tells us”.

Richard Watts, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, believes the Government is likely to support the traffic lights system. “The FSA’s recommendation is based on a very major piece of work and no one has come up with any evidence that disproves what that says – that all systems work to some extent but traffic lights is the most effective,” Watts says.

Another stakeholder likely to be in favour of traffic lights becoming standard is Sainsbury’s, which was an early supporter of the format. The retailer features traffic lights on front-of-pack labelling across 4,000 of its own products, with GDA information on back-of-pack. “Our research shows that as a quick and easy indication, our customers like the traffic lights and anyone who wants a bit more information looks on the back,” a Sainsbury’s spokesperson tells just-food. The retailer added that it hoped the research would support traffic lights as the most effective option for a unified system, but said it would “wait and see what the research shows”.

Tesco, on the other hand, has adopted a GDA-based front-of-pack system, and like the FDF is staunch in its defence of this format. Tesco says the fact that it has now introduced this labelling on some 20,000 of its own products demonstrates its commitment to helping tackle what it describes as “one of the most pressing public health issues of our time”.

The retail giant is not prepared to comment on possible future discussions with government or other parties about alternative systems, preferring to limit its comments to what it knows about the effectiveness of GDA. “GDA is simple,” a spokesperson says. “The evidence shows it is changing eating habits for the better. We have pioneered this, we know it works. It’s on 20,000 products.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents UK retailers, says each supermarket operator has chosen the system that it thinks best suits its customers. “All retailers are committed to carry labelling and information to help customers make healthy choices,” BRC spokesperson Krishan Rama says. “They know their customers best and that is why they have made slightly different judgments on the best way to present this information.”

If the matter does come down to negotiation between legislators, retailers and producers it could be that the hybrid system adopted by Asda – which incorporates elements of both approaches – may be suggested as a compromise. The dual system has received a favourable reaction from the FSA and Health Minister Dawn Primarolo, says Asda, and, significantly, the view of the Children’s Food Campaign indicates pressure groups may also settle for a combined format.

“The key is colour coding because it is colour coding that gives the consumer the ‘at a glance’ information they need to make purchases,” says Watts. “So we are pretty relaxed about a combined system as long as the ground rules for the format of the system are based on science. The GDA system was drawn up by industry. If that [a hybrid] is what it takes to get colour-coding so be it.”

However, Watts adds: “Whenever I have suggested the colour-coding system to industry they have always rejected it.” The FDF and Tesco certainly seem set to defend their position on GDA, but will be faced with something of a quandary if the FSA research comes down firmly in favour of colour-coding, particularly given the generally inclusive and industry-friendly tone the Government has taken in the formulation of the anti-obesity strategy.

It remains to be seen whether the Government will seek a shorter time-frame to determine the best way forward. Given the sense of urgency suggested by the Health Secretary’s comments, ministers may be anxious to see some findings sooner than the end of the year.

Rather more imminently, legislators and the industry await proposals from the European Commission on food labelling, which are due at the end of the month. Interestingly, there are indications that the Commission will advocate a GDA-based format, and the degree to which this will influence the ongoing debate over labelling in the UK will be interesting to watch.