Blog: Dean BestWhy all signs point to compromise on labelling

Dean Best | 30 January 2008

Traffic lights or guideline daily amounts?

The debate over nutrition labelling has long been painted as a straight choice between the two – much to the annoyance of supporters of both systems.

Both sides claim to share the same goal: to better inform consumers so they can move closer towards following a healthy, balanced diet.

And now, despite the ongoing discussion over which system is more effective, it seems likely both sides will share the same label.

Today (30 January), the EU issued proposals to standardise food labels across Europe. Consumers, the EU said, had become confused by the "ever more varied and complex" labels carried on food across the continent.

The EU’s plans echoed a similar call from the UK last week for its food industry to bin the three systems in use in the country and develop “a single, simple and effective approach to food labelling".

Alas, the proposals from the EU make the subject of nutrition labelling anything but simple. Proponents of guideline daily amounts (GDAs) expressed their “delight” at the EU’s insistence that labels on a product include information on baddies like saturated fat and salt based on a recommended daily allowance.

European consumer body BEUC grumbled that the EU’s plans did not include a "colour-coding scheme" to help consumers judge "at a glance" the nutritional value of a product.

For supporters of those systems, time-pressed consumers need to be able to make judgements over what is in food in a matter of seconds. Red, amber and green traffic lights are an effective way of getting nutritional information over to consumers simply and quickly, they argue.

Nevertheless, the UK’s food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, insisted the EU’s plans do allow for “national schemes along the lines of the FSA’s traffic light approach”.

Indeed, the European Commission admitted there was scope for “additional national schemes – provided they do not undermine the EU rules”.

Now, the EU’s plans need to be passed by national governments and the European Parliament before becoming law. And the process is likely to take a few years. But it’s likely that a system using both traffic lights and GDAs could be a likely – and viable – compromise to how labelling can help fight obesity.

As Richard Watts, coordinator of UK group the Children's Food Campaign, told just-food last week: "The key is colour coding because it is colour coding that gives the consumer the 'at a glance' information they need to make purchases.

“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."


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