Government watchdog makes an unexpected u-turn in the fight to help us separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ in our shopping basket.
Four years ago following extensive research, the government’s Food Standards Agency recommended a system of traffic light labels to help people make healthy choices when buying food. The scheme is an attempt to tackle the growing problem of obesity and diet related ill health. In response to the demands of manufacturers, a further independent study was commissioned, which last May in its report supported the use of traffic light labelling to indicate the level of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a product. It agreed that using colour-coded labels was the most effective way in which to assist people to make informed choices with regard to their health when purchasing food products. It also stressed the importance of having a single universal system in order to reduce any confusion.
However, getting the food industry to take these findings on board has proved a huge stumbling block for the Food Standards Agency and an ongoing battle has waged for years. Whilst some retailers such as Sainsburys and Asda backed the scheme, the majority of manufacturers have vigorously opposed it, fearing that any red label appearing on food would have a negative impact on sales. Instead the opposing companies, notably Tesco & Kelogg’s have spent vast amounts of money to come up with an alternative scheme based on the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) of the nutritional components of a product. A panel of independent experts has slammed this as further confusing things for the consumer, additionally suggesting that the pastel colours used for the scheme could mistakenly give the impression that unhealthy ingredients are actually good for you. There is also more than one version of the scheme. Combined with the difficulty many people have with percentages and the fact that different companies use different portion sizes on which to base its percentages, one could be forgiven for cynically supposing that manufacturers have deliberately deigned the scheme to bring confusion rather than clarity to the consumer!
The latest move in this ongoing debacle, came with the news that the FSA had backed down, agreeing at its board meeting in Cardiff this week that it would accept any two out of three criteria, these being the use of red, amber, & green, the words ‘high’ ‘medium’ ‘low’, or the nutrient percentages. Health & consumer groups have expressed outrage at the turn around, which they feel will delay any improvement in diet related illness, which is said to cost the NHS over £6 billion a year!
It is difficult to understand what could justify such a decision after years of fighting for a system that was central to government policy to improve public health. In ignoring its own research and making this decision the FSA looses credibility in this arena. It is not unreasonable to think that lobbying by the food industry has played a major part. Hill & Knowlton, the company hired by the food industry is known to have lobbied ‘aggressively’, & claimed on its website that its meetings with key players had “resulted in a significant shift in attitudes among core government stakeholders.” The Uk has no legal powers to enforce any food labelling, and the ultimate decision lies with the EU. However the commission in Brussels has also been subjected to extensive lobbying and is known to favour the GDA system.
In rejecting such a simple measure, the message seems loud and clear: profits are more important than public health!