Sunday, December 6, 2009

Traffic Lights...the right road for food labelling.

There is a big battle going on in Brussels these days that gets scant attention in the national press, but which will have major implications for consumers and their health for years to come.

In January 2008, the EU Commission introduced a proposal for a new directive to reform how food is labelled across the EU. The proposed rules will require manufacturers to put nutritional information for 6 nutrients (energy, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar and salt) on the front of packaging.

New regulations are badly needed. Just this week the Food Safety Authority published a report on consumers experiences and preferences when it comes to food labelling. Almost 50% always or usually look at the labels, mostly to check nutritional, calorie content and ingredients. I have to be honest and say that I am among the 50% that doesn't do this very often, either because the print is very small or because the information is very technical and of little use. However I will make a New Years resolution....3 weeks early to start from now on! Although I am a sucker for the foods, such as biscuits labelled as "low fat". I know I am kidding myself into thinking chocolate biscuits are not fattening!

The research showed that 87% felt that nutritional information was very important or important and 81% of consumers want information on the health impact of alcohol on labels. Of most relevance to the debate raging in the EU institutions at the moment, they asked people about whether they preferred the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) system or Traffic Light system for nutritional information. Here the response is a little confusing as they presented 4 options, but overall 39% preferred the traffic light system. However the suggestions that any new regulations could be a mixture of both was voted down by Irish consumers. The report does appear to show that consumers are taking more notice of the nutritional information on the packaging than before.

The traffic light system was developed by the Food Satefy Agency in the UK and would require manufacturers to put a red (high), yellow (medium) and green (low) symbol on the packaging depending on the levels of salt, fat and sugar in the product. The GDA system was developed by the Food Industry and consists of symbols with percentages of fat, sugar etc in the product based on the average daily amount for an adult.

I like traffic lights...unless they are red of course!

BEUC and other consumer and health advocates want the traffic light system for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt because it is much clearer than the percentages GDA model. Of course the food manufacturers and processors are against this because no company wants to have red light symbols on their packaging. However the best way around this of course is for them to reduce the amount of salt, sugar and fat in their products. So not only will the traffic light system help inform consumers as to the levels of these substances, it will also force manufacturers to change the contents of their products which will be good for everyones health.

This is an important debate and issue. Several reports and studies have shown that consumers are not aware of the levels of fat, sugar and salt in many of the products they eat. The Dispatches Show on Channel 4 did an excellent programme on breakfast cereals recently. When they poured the equivalent of what the children were consuming in sugar into a bowl (300grams) a week, its easier to understand why we have an epidemic of obesity.

Therefore it is important that the EU Commission and all involved in the development of these new food labelling regulations make sure that the health needs of consumers are put before the interests and profits of the food industry. In particular our elected representatives in Brussels, our MEPs have an important role to play, lets hope they take the traffic light approach on this particular road.

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