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Food labelling standardisation 'has been a long coming', says expert

Major retailers are likely to sign up to a new voluntary scheme to consistently label food with nutritional information, an expert has said.24 Oct 2012

The Government has outlined plans to work with industry to develop a new standardised "hybrid system" of food labelling. Although those in the food industry will not be forced to display ingredient details in accordance with the developed standard, food law expert Sarah Taylor of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said it was likely that big companies would voluntarily do so.

"Standardised food labelling has been a long time coming," Taylor said. "There have been calls to standardise the approach to food labelling across retail for years. The major supermarkets have championed their own approach historically - Sainsbury with their wheel, Asda with a hybrid model combining information on guideline daily amounts (GDA) for intake as well as 'traffic lights'."

"The difficulty perceived, although not necessarily by the retailers, has been consumer confusion. No one approach has won out and those who shop around are confronted with various types of packaging. What the health industry has been pushing for is clear, standardised, at-a-glance information on salt, fat, saturated fat, calories etc," said Taylor.

"The fact that the Government is seeking voluntary take up reflects both European primacy and the disinclination of Government to impose outcomes on industry. I suspect the big retailers will all sign up because they want to be part of a healthy food agenda. It remains to be seen how much the manufacturers will be able to do, or want to do, in order to reduce the amount of food that will be traffic lighted red," Taylor said.

The Department of Health said that it would work with industry to agree on the "detail" of the new hybrid system. It said it wants the system to have "consistent visuals to show – on front of packs – how much fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar, and how many calories are in food products." It said it expects the new standardised labelling to be in use by next summer.

"The UK already has the largest number of products with front of pack labels in Europe but research has shown that consumers get confused by the wide variety of labels used," Public Health Minister Anna Soubry said in a statement. "By having a consistent system we will all be able to see at a glance what is in our food. This will help us all choose healthier options and control our calorie intake."

“Obesity and poor diet cost the NHS billions of pounds every year. Making small changes to our diet can have a big impact on our health and could stop us getting serious illnesses – such as heart disease – later in life,” she added.

Food law expert Pauline Munro of Pinsent Masons said that the food sector "has been against a simple traffic light system without more qualified information being provided, typically based upon GDA amounts". This is "because of the potential impact on sales of certain categories of food," she added. The Government's hybrid system is "more likely to be welcomed than previous proposals," Munro said.

"The big problem is consumer confusion – for example if a food is high in fat but low in sugar does that mean it is a good food or a bad food? Some consumers don’t find this sort of information useful and need to be simply told how healthy a food is. However other sections of the population want to buy low fat foods or low sugar foods, but may struggle to understand GDAs, and need simple tagging or colour coding to help identify what they would like to know or should know. The new proposals seem to strike the right commercial and practical balance," Munro added.