In May, Tesco announced the introduction of a labelling scheme that uses images of traffic lights to indicate the fat, sugar and salt content of its products. However, the fact that some of its supposedly healthy food offerings may attract an amber or red label under regulatory guidelines suggests Tesco still has work to do before consumers get food label clarity.

The supermarket chain’s new labelling scheme is set to begin on a trial basis in September. The system should enable its customers to ascertain easily the health properties – or lack thereof – in products displayed on the shelves. The labels will use a traffic light sequence, with green showing that a product is healthy, amber less so and red unhealthy.

Tesco has taken this decision in light of increasing concern about poor diet and the resultant fear of an obesity crisis. One of consumers’ greatest worries is that they often simply do not know which products are genuinely healthy choices.

Levels of salt, fat and sugar contained in many products – particularly the increasingly popular prepared meals – have come under scrutiny recently from organisations such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Supermarkets have been accused of misleading consumers by failing to explain that, for example, a product that is low in fat may still contain high levels of sugar. The Food Commission’s tests of Tesco’s healthy living range back this up: using the guidelines given by the FSA, the research indicated that Tesco’s Healthy Living Sultana Bran cereal would attract red labels for levels of salt and sugar.

Such allegations over labelling confusion have dented consumers’ trust in supermarkets. It is partly because of the impact this could have on sales, and partly to pre-empt any legislative action, that Tesco has decided to take the lead in this field by introducing its ‘traffic lights’ scheme.

Launching the scheme is clearly a bold and laudable move, but it could well turn out to be something of a liability for Tesco if products billed as healthy start to attract amber and red labels suggesting the opposite. If Tesco is to gain a reputation for providing trustworthy information in this way, it should adapt its products to meet the FSA’s guidelines, thereby providing consumers with straightforward and independent information on what they are buying.

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