A handful of major UK food manufacturers has seized the initiative on food product labelling, while Europewide food claims legislation is still under discussion. The companies have launched a labelling scheme that will see percentages of recommended daily intakes for calories, fat, salt and sugar prominently displayed front-of-pack and which could influence labelling legislation being thrashed out in the European Parliament.
With the food industry worldwide increasingly being called on to take action in the battle against obesity and other health problems associated with poor nutrition and overeating, Nestlé, Kellogg's, PepsiCo, Danone and Kraft have endorsed a monochrome labelling scheme for Guideline Dietary Amount (GDA). Unilever issued a statement to the same effect while the UK Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Association, backed by Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Masterfoods UK (Mars), launched a campaign called 'Be treatwise' that incorporates GDA on-packet information and includes a website (www.betreatwise.org.uk) and other promotional activity.
Kellogg's UK has featured GDA information on the front of its products since early 2005, as has the UK's biggest retailer, Tesco, on many of its own-label offerings. Fellow UK retailer, Sainsbury, presents similar information via its 'Wheel of Health' — a colour-coded nutrient pie chart it has employed on hundreds of its products for more than a year. McDonald's also instigated a GDA scheme in 26 outlets in and around Turin, Italy, at the Winter Olympics in February.
The UK companies are members of the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), which noted the initiative may be influential in determining food labelling benchmarks across Europe. "There are no schemes as advanced as this in other European countries, although the Dutch are moving forward with initiatives that may see the light of day this year," the CIAA's communications manager, Thierry Habotte, told FF&N.
"Some European countries are waiting to see the outcome of the EU Labelling and Health Claims proposals, which is a work in progress. But the momentum to provide more information on products is strong, and so it is a matter of when rather than if, for one or another of these schemes to gain a footing in most European markets."
In the UK, consumer groups criticized the initiative, saying it undermines any chance of a unified labelling scheme being implemented in the UK, and therefore compounds the consumer confusion it seeks to resolve.
"The timing suggests this is a cynical move to derail the Food Standards Agency's steady progress toward an industry-wide agreement on front-of-pack food labelling," said Ed Mayo, chief executive of the UK's National Consumer Council. The British Heart Foundation noted that, "Unilateral action — however well intentioned — will result in multiple labelling systems, and inevitably lead to confusion."
The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) was expected to recommend a colour-coded "multiple traffic light system" as FF&N went to press, a system the food industry views as being a vulgar reduction of nutritional issues. "Any traffic light type labelling scheme aimed at distinguishing certain nutrients in a food as high, medium or low is simplistic and potentially misleading to consumers," said Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents the larger UK food and beverage producers.
"Such schemes do not offer additional information to consumers about what is in their food, nor do they provide a guide to eating a balanced diet." The FDF said $26 billion worth of manufacturers' products, about two thirds of its members offerings, would have GDA information on pack by the end of 2006.
The FSA was diplomatic in responding to the manufacturers' initiative.
"It is encouraging that this group of manufacturers is taking seriously the need to improve food labelling," senior press officer Sally Pain said.?"However it is important that we all work together to deliver a scheme that works for consumers across the whole food industry. Consumers tell us they want a straightforward labelling scheme, established by an authoritative and trusted source, which will show them at a glance if a food contains high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar." She added: "We'll have to wait and see if a unified labelling scheme is possible. We haven't made our recommendation yet and we are working closely with industry." That recommendation was due in March.
Ian Tokelove, spokesman for UK-based better-food campaigner The Food Commission said, "Hopefully there will be some kind of evaluation of these schemes to see which ones are most effective. GDA is better than nothing but many people cannot understand the GDA system. A small but significant percentage of the population have trouble understanding percentages."