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The new British traffic light label – a case of foul play

26-06-2013

In an about-turn by the food industry, a new voluntary system of food labelling with traffic-light colours is being introduced on a large scale in the UK; many major manufacturers and retail groups have already signed up. A success for consumers? Unfortunately not. The regulations have long since been watered down to appease the industry, and policymakers are even trying to use the traffic-light label as a justification for privatising healthcare costs.

Europe’s food industry invested one billion euros in an unprecedented, multi-year lobbying battle to block a European-wide traffic-light system of compulsory food labelling. On 16 June 2010 in the initially traffic-light-friendly European Parliament, the industry’s campaign ended in success. The battle had been won: the traffic-light label didn’t made it into the European Union’s new Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC). The industry’s system prevailed, even after trialogue negotiations between the European Parliament, Commission and Council, which is made up of the heads of government of the EU member states.

The United Kingdom: the mother ship of the traffic-light label debate

The food industry in the UK must have been especially pleased with the results. It was here that, in the spring of 2007, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) responded to the country’s rampant obesity by unveiling its new tricolour food labelling system, a move that sparked the “battle of the traffic light”, driving the industry to come up with its own food-labelling scheme (GDA, guideline daily amount). This was the starting point for what would eventually become an EU-wide debate.

And now, six years later, the very same British food industry, including major retail groups and manufacturers like Nestlé and Mars, are sitting at the same table with the FSA and announcing the good news about a jointly devised voluntary traffic-light scheme.

Less stringent criteria for sugars

But the new British scheme can in no way be considered a success: contrary to appearances, the food industry hasn’t changed its tune. For years, it has been claiming that colour-coded food labelling is too simplistic and misleading; ultimately the industry even managed to block its compulsory use. And now suddenly the same companies have accepted traffic-light labelling in the UK as a voluntary scheme – after having ensured long ago that the nutritional criteria were changed. In the new British scheme, the amount of sugar a product can contain without being given a red warning label is therefore much higher than in the original system, which was develop to alert consumers with a red light for any product containing at least 12.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams. This boundary has since been raised to 22.5 grams. The slightly stricter limits that have been set for fat content (a red light for 17 instead of 20 grams per 100 grams) cannot diminish the industry’s delight. A lesson in masterful lobbying.  

How were the nutritional criteria developed?

The boundary values at which “green” changes to “amber” come from the European Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims, which has an annex that defines when a product can be referred to as “low-fat” or “low in sugar”. A “low-sugar” product with no more than 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams is given a green light for sugar. The boundary values between “amber” and “red” were determined by the FSA as follows: if 100 grams of a food contributes at least 25 per cent of the daily allowance or recommended daily maximum intake for a particular nutrient, the signal turns red. This means that, if the recommended daily allowance for fat is approx. 80 grams, the fat signal on the label will be red for any product with at least 20 grams of fat per 100 grams.

The reference values for recommended daily allowances came from the British recommendations for adult nutrient intake, which were determined in part by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA). The reference quantity for sugar was 50 grams, meaning that the boundary value from “amber” to “red” was 12.5 grams. It’s important to keep in mind that the 50-gram value does not represent a daily requirement but instead a limit that should not be exceeded. Sugar is not an essential nutrient; humans do not need sugar in their diets. The FSA derived this boundary value from the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that no more than ten per cent of a person’s total calories be consumed as added sugar. This means that, based on a daily calorie intake of 2,000 kilocalories, as is recommended for adults, less than 200 kcal should come from added sugar. One gram of sugar contains four kilocalories, so the respective limit was set at 50 grams.

The new boundary value of 22.5 grams per 100 grams now being used in the UK for determining when a product can be labelled as “high in sugar” (red light) is the result of massive lobbying by the food industry. In fact, the industry even managed to ensure that the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC) requires that any voluntary food labelling scheme – and therefore also the voluntary British traffic-light label – be based on clearly defined reference values that are specified in an annex of the regulation. These values, the so-called “Guideline Daily Amounts”, were also the basis for the GDA food label developed by the industry – a voluntary nutritional labelling scheme with which, above all, the major food corporations wanted to block the introduction of traffic-light labelling. These Guideline Daily Amounts are also used as reference values for nutrient intake, but the most important difference to the reference values used by traffic-light labels is: the maximum daily allowance for sugar is not 50 grams, but 90 grams. And 25 per cent of 90 grams is 22.5 grams – the new boundary value for “high sugar” (red).

The new voluntary combi-label: the UK authorities are using this graphic as a sample label.

The EU takes pressure off British government

Let’s not forget: obesity was the reason why the traffic-light label was developed by the FSA, at the time a young and completely politically independent organisation – thanks to the restructuring of the national consumer health protection programme promised by the British government after the BSE crisis. The idea was that consumers should be able to understand at a glance how much fat, sugar and salt manufactured foods contain – information which is generally well hidden by elaborate and even brazen advertising claims. The colour coding should indicate whether the nutrient levels are high, medium or low so that people could choose more nutritionally balanced products and therefore eat healthier diets. A change that would eventually also benefit the chronically underfunded “National Health Service”, the UK’s tax-financed healthcare system, which bears the costs associated with obesity while the food industry happily profits from the sale of its calorie bombs.

To make matters worse (from the industry’s point of view), the new label actually worked, and the first voluntary users stepped forward, like the supermarket chain Sainsbury, who hoped its participation in the scheme would boost the chain’s marketing and image profile among its typically middle-class customers. Companies responded by improving product recipes, and many positive effects for consumers were scientifically researched and verified. However, because the Labour government at the time wanted to avoid any serious conflicts with the food industry, the traffic light label never got its day in the sun – its adoption as a system of compulsory food labelling. Eventually the EU stepped in, making food labelling a European issue – and Number 10 Downing Street was off the hook.

FSA: created as independent, then whistled back

In spite of these challenges, the gutsy FSA continued its campaign for the traffic light, which is why it comes as no surprise that the industry eventually took to the barricades. Then, the newly elected Tory government under David Cameron had nothing better to do than to effectively castrate the troublesome organisation: the FSA’s nutrition policy remit was forcibly integrated into the Department of Health. After all, peace is the first rule of bureaucracy, even on the island. But the problems remained – obesity here, an underfunded healthcare system there. And a government that needed some success in terms of health-policy goodwill – and perhaps more than that…

Round tables were convened. The FSA, reduced to a traffic-light veteran whose strings were now being pulled by the government, had the honour of running an elaborate participatory, opinion-forming process with stakeholders of all kinds to come up with the ideal food labelling system – and lo and behold: after a long period of fierce pushing and pulling behind closed doors, a new industry-endorsed scheme was unveiled, combing the industry’s label (GDA) with traffic-light colours. This system is characterised by (1) its significantly higher boundary value for sugars, meaning that the industry can pack much more sugar into their products without being penalised by a red light, (2) a design that is much less eye-catching than the original traffic light label and (3) voluntary use, which seems to be an obligatory condition for all of the industry’s concessions.

Now it’s in the hands of the consumer – or is it?

And as “icing on the cake” the message that is being sent with the new system is that now everyone is towing the same line (without even being forced by Brussels and literally “very British”). And as a threat – albeit an unspoken one: thanks to all this magnificent work that has been done to reach a consensus, consumers now have all the information they need to finally choose better diets (thereby saving the national healthcare system money). And if consumers still can’t manage to eat better, well they’re in big trouble!

Because then, yes then, it’s no one’s fault but their own, and every single overweight person will henceforth be viewed as a parasite on the tax-funded British healthcare system – and isn’t it only logical that someone like this should be bearing the (additional) costs they produce?

Consumers are footing the bill for the traffic-light consensus

The food industry must be very pleased. Its strategy is paying off: it is no longer seen as the bad guy of health politics. The industry now appears to be accepting responsibility for public health – completely voluntarily! – and is even using somewhat clearer labelling for the nutritionally unbalanced products that they’re still trying to palm off on consumers under the guise of healthy eating.

From now on – and you don’t have to be a fortune teller to see what’s coming – the public debate on obesity in Britain will be much more focused on the individual consumer. They could even lose some or all of their medical benefits for the treatment of obesity-linked diseases or be required to make copayments for these services.

This is the essence of the new British traffic-light harmony: the profits remain privatised (and untouched) – while the costs (formerly borne by all taxpayers) are being personalised.

Last update November 10, 2014