The UK’s Food Standards Agency has launched a consultation setting out proposals on a front-of-pack food labelling scheme that would use a Multiple Traffic Light (MTL) to show at a glance whether a food contains high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

In June 2005 research involving more than 2,600 people was undertaken to find which of four possible front-of-pack schemes helped the majority of people to identify healthier food options when shopping.

Taking account of the research results, consumers particularly liked two of the four schemes. These were the Multiple Traffic Light and the Colour Guideline Daily Amount (CGDA). On balance, the evidence demonstrated that Multiple Traffic Light performed best for the majority of consumers at showing the key nutritional characteristics of a food simply and easily. In the research the Simple Traffic Light was not liked and felt to be too basic.

The CGDA-based scheme also performed well, particularly when people were asked to compare the nutritional content of two products. However, a third of respondents from lower socio-economic and ethnic minorities groups were unable to use the CGDA to identify whether a food had high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

When asked which scheme they preferred, the majority of people chose the CGDA format. However, further qualitative research confirmed that many people could not apply the information it contained to the food choices they actually made.

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The FSA said it is therefore considering proposing the Multiple Traffic Light for the front-of-pack scheme. However, because CGDAs were also well liked, the FSA is inviting views on both options.

It is proposed that the front-of-pack labelling scheme should appear initially on foods such as ready meals, pies and pizzas that people eat regularly and find most difficult to assess nutritionally.
“What we choose to eat is a personal matter, but we want to help people make informed choices for themselves about the content of their food. Consumers have told us that they would like to make healthier choices but find the current information confusing. After carrying out rigorous and comprehensive research, we now have the makings of a system that will make it quicker and easier for people to do so,” said Deirdre Hutton, chair of the Food Standards Agency.

The scheme has been developed by the FSA as part of the Government’s White Paper initiative to help make healthier food choices easier.

Industry favours GDA approach

Responding to the FSA consultation, British Retail Consortium director general, Dr Kevin Hawkins, said: “We want to help consumers make informed choices on enjoying a healthy and balanced diet and have used GDAs on the back of packs for some time to put nutritional information in a simple format for customers and into a context that is relevant to them. However, the BRC still feels that information for consumers is only one part of the equation.  Government needs to also ensure all consumers are educated about healthy lifestyles; including clear advice about the contribution that all foods make to a healthy diet as well as the importance of physical activity.”

Meanwhile, Food and Drink Federation deputy director general Martin Paterson stressed that the industry favours the GDA strategy.

“Any traffic light based scheme runs the risk of scaring or confusing consumers – a label containing any red stop sign is likely to be viewed negatively. Therefore, the opportunity to develop GDAs, which give factual information enabling consumers to plan their daily diet, should not be missed,” Paterson said.

“Education and information for consumers is the key: we should not shy away from this course of action for the sake of a seemingly easy ‘quick fix’, like a traffic light scheme. Industry has pledged to work with government on an information and education programme on diet and lifestyle issues,” he added.