By Mike Urch, SeafoodSource contributing editor
Published on 20 June, 2013
A new system of front-of-pack food labeling is to be rolled out in the U.K. during the next 18 months. It will combine color-coding and nutritional information to show how much fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar, and how many calories, are in each product.
In effect the system contains elements of the ‘traffic light’ system preferred by consumers where red equals ‘high’ amber equals ‘medium’ and green equals ‘low’, and the guideline daily amount (GDA) system favored by some retailers and food manufacturers.
However, like existing labeling, the new system will be voluntary, and it is estimated that only just over 60 percent of food products sold in the U.K. will be covered by it. While most major supermarket groups have come on board and will adopt the system for their own label products, major food manufacturers such as Cadbury and Coca-Cola are sticking with GDAs.
They, and other food manufacturers, obviously want the freedom to decide how best to disclose the levels of fat, salt and sugar in their food so that it doesn’t damage sales.
With the British government becoming increasingly worried by rising obesity levels, particularly among children, both the traffic-light and GDA food labeling systems were examined by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2006.
The results of consumer tests were clear, according to Richard Ayre, an FSA board member at the time.
“[Consumers] preferred traffic lights,” Ayre said. Health lobbying organizations, who saw this scheme as a major step in the fight against heart disease and obesity, agreed.
The FSA therefore recommended that the traffic-light system be adopted, but big players in the food industry successfully lobbied against it and manufacturers were left to their own devices to the detriment of consumer health according to Ayre.
“In the absence of a clear labeling system, consumers really are at the mercy of the [food manufacturer’s] marketing department.”
SeafoodSource reported last Thursday that Young’s Seafood is backing the new labeling system.
“The consistency initiative is designed to make it easier for people to understand the nutritional labeling on their food,” a Young’s spokesman said. And CEO Leendert den Hollander was fulsome in his praise.
“This new nutritional label design gives people consistent information to help make healthier choices in their diet,” den Hollander said.
It will be interesting to note how long it takes the company to adopt the new labeling. While its new Gastro fishcakes pack highlights a low calorie count on the front, other nutritional information is buried on the back. And there are no colored “traffic lights” highlighting the 24 percent fat or 19 percent saturated fat that each fishcake contains of a person’s GDA.
While den Hollander says that Young’s Seafood is encouraging people to eat fish two times a week in line with government recommendations it is debatable whether the undoubted benefits to health are not being masked by the addition of other ingredients in made up seafood dishes produced by Young’s and other manufacturers.
For example, a Marks and Spencer product, Scottish Haddock with potatoes & baby spinach in a creamy sauce with a cheese & herb gratin, contains 34 percent fat and a massive 72 percent saturated fat of a person’s GDA per portion. And, worryingly for the success of the new labeling system, in this instance Marks and Spencer uses what is very close to the recommended new label on the front of its pack complete with traffic lights and GDAs.
However, at the end of the day it is up to the individual consumer to decide what he or she wants to eat. But it is up to the government to insist that it is as easy as possible to make that choice.
“This isn’t about telling people what should or shouldn’t be in their [shopping] baskets,” said Julia Waltham, from the British Heart Foundation. “The government should strongly recommend that food companies and supermarkets use a consistent food labeling scheme that includes traffic light colors.
“They have a responsibility to provide a system that helps shoppers compare products and then easily pick the healthiest option if they want to.”