Cereal firms are still stopped at the red light

Many manufacturers are still shying away from colour-coded nutrition labels. Could Brexit force them out of hiding, asks David Burrows.

In June 2013 the UK government launched a new front-of-pack (FOP) label that combined red, amber and green colour-coding with nutritional information showing how much salt, fat, saturated fat and sugar and how many calories are in foods. Studies had shown the scheme is preferred by consumers and could be both an effective and cost-saving intervention against obesity.

“The labels are not designed to demonise foods with lots of reds but to have people consider what they are eating and make sure it’s part of a balanced diet,” the Department of Health said. “People will also be able to compare the same kinds of foods at a glance to see if there’s a healthier option, for example, if they are buying a ready meal.”

But research published last week showed manufacturers have not embraced the scheme as wholeheartedly. “Considering that front-of-pack traffic-light colour-coded labelling has been recommended for years and adopted by many companies, it is frustrating that big and perceived healthier brands continue to refuse this form of helpful labelling,” explained Kawther Hashem, a researcher at Action on Sugar.

The campaign group surveyed 25 breakfast cereal makers, and discovered that the likes of Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Jordans and Bear use FOP labelling, but don’t apply the colour coding recommended by the DoH four years ago. And while brands including Weetabix, Alpen and Quaker Oats use the traffic lights, there are at least three different label variations.

The result is a minefield for those seeking low-sugar options, for instance, and raises yet more questions about the continued reliance on voluntary-led schemes to tackle obesity.

Action on Sugar suggested that consumers could eat 45 fewer teaspoons of sugar every month if they were encouraged to switch to low-sugar products by FOP labels. “It’s scandalous that certain food manufacturers are still refusing to be transparent when it comes to front-of-pack nutrition labelling,” said the group’s campaign director, Katharine Jenner.

Jenner urged manufacturers to follow the example set by retailers – all of the nine top supermarkets use the DoH’s scheme on their own-label cereals. But the Food and Drink Federation said its members were already going above and beyond their legal obligations set out in EU laws.

But what happens after Brexit? Theresa May’s approach to childhood obesity, specifically, might have got a pasting in the press last week via the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, but the prime minister has suggested she is up for changing labelling laws.

“The UK’s decision to leave the European Union will give us greater flexibility to determine what information should be presented on packaged food, and how it should be displayed,” reads her much-maligned Childhood Obesity Strategy. “We want to build on the success of our current labelling scheme, and review additional opportunities to go further and ensure we are using the most effective ways to communicate information to families. This might include clearer visual labelling, such as teaspoons of sugar, to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink.”

The teaspoon idea has been promoted heavily by Oliver, who told the Sunday Times last week that May and her team “don’t give a f***” about tackling childhood obesity. "But what’s even more scary is that when May released the child strategy that she had ruined, I believe her team were genuinely chuffed with what they had done,” Oliver said.

A change to labelling laws – to make the traffic light system mandatory or even improve it – is on its own unlikely to be enough to appease campaigners or curb obesity to any significant extent. But it would be a start. It could also be seen as an admission (finally) that industry-led schemes are only as good as the laggards.

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