Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King today (9 October) called on the UK food industry to adopt common front-of-pack nutrition labels.

King said the sector should “put aside their differences” and introduce “universal” labelling.

Sainsbury’s has used traffic light labels, based on the guideline daily amount of the nutrients shoppers should consume, on its own-label products. Until two months ago, Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, favoured labels showing GDAs, without traffic lights.

The GDA approach, where each nutrient is calibrated in terms of the percentage of a recommended daily intake, is a more detailed approach though its opponents suggest that it can confuse consumers.

The traffic lights system has the advantage of clarity and simplicity but is accused by its critics of being a blunt instrument.

“Sainsbury’s has always championed simple, clear nutritional labelling,” King said today. “Seven years ago, we were the first to use traffic lights, which are based on guideline daily amounts on front of pack. Years of research show customers prefer a combination of red, amber and green traffic light colour-coding, combined with GDAs. Now we are calling for the industry to put aside their differences and work together and align behind a common format.”

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The issue of how the nutritional content of food is labelled on packages has been a topic of fierce debate. The subject has risen back to the top of industry headlines in recent weeks ahead of new EU rules set to be implemented on food information, including front-of-pack labels.

In August, Tesco said it would use a “hybrid labelling system”, which included both GDAs and traffic lights, after “new customer research”. Last month, Aldi and Lidl said they would put traffic light labels on their products.

Morrisons, the UK’s fourth-largest retailer, also said it would adopt a hybrid front-of-pack nutritional labelling system which combines guideline daily amounts (GDAs) with traffic light colours provided an agreement can be reached by the UK food industry and Government regarding the nutritional criteria used.

However, most food manufacturers have backed the GDA labels. Industry watchers argue manufacturers have held out against colours because they make the label less like an additional piece of information for consumers and, in the case of some products at least, far more like a warning. Nevertheless, there are some suppliers, including McCain Foods, that use traffic lights. That said, so far, the Food and Drink Federation, the industry association for food manufacturers, has not made a public statement on whether its support of GDAs will change.

King argued upcoming EU rules mean manufacturers and retailers will need to change labels.

“Impending EU regulatory packaging changes mean all food retailers and manufacturers will need to change a number of aspects of their labelling anyway,” King said. “The Department of Health is currently working on exactly what this means for the UK food industry but we know it will lead to a significant packaging change. It’s a once in a generation opportunity to give customers a unified approach that makes it easier for them to make healthier eating choices.”

The Sainsbury’s chief said the retailer would change its “Wheel of Health” traffic light labels to a table format. King added: “We’re calling on other manufacturers and retailers to do the same so we can ensure a consistent, combined approach.”