The government has taken a big step today towards ensuring that shoppers can walk into any major supermarket, pick up an item of food or drink and quickly and easily assess its nutritional content.
The introduction of a consistent front-of-pack labelling system is something World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has been seeking for a long time as part of the fight against rising rates of obesity and we welcome its introduction next year.
The voluntary system (it cannot be mandatory because that would require agreement between EU members) will see a combined labelling system that includes guideline daily amounts, ‘traffic light’ colour coding and ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ wording to indicate levels of fat, salt, sugar and calories.
This is the system WCRF favoured and one that independent research commissioned by the Food Standards Agency showed consumers prefer – it is easy to use and it lets people make an informed choice fairly swiftly.
The announcement is a result of a consultation carried out during the summer – which WCRF contributed towards – and it follows Tesco’s surprise announcement in August that it would join most other supermarkets in putting the green, amber and red traffic lights system on its packaging.
Optimists among us thought at the time that this indicated the food industry’s willingness to accept consistent front-of-pack labelling. Now, government backing for a unified scheme should give more encouragement to universal adoption of customers’ preferred labelling system.
The importance of uniformity in labelling is evidenced by the current situation where different colours and measurements are used in different shops, confusing consumers and making it difficult to assess nutritional value at a glance.
Announcing the change, Public Health Minister Anna Sodbury said she expects it to be in place by next summer.
This is the first step in reducing the numbers of people in the UK who suffer from health problems – including cancer – because they are overweight or obese.
We are quietly confident that as consumers become more informed about what is in the food and drink they are buying, they will switch to healthier options. This should prompt food manufacturers to invest more in healthier foods and turn away from producing food and drink that is high in fat, salt, sugar and calories.
However, we call on the government and food manufacturers and retailers to launch a publicity campaign to make sure everyone is clear about how to use the system and what the new labels mean – including teaching kids in school so they grow up understanding the labels. Otherwise the new system could be limited to those who already understand nutrition and fail to permeate the whole of society.