Food industry digs in heels over traffic light labels

NGOs, public health associations and consumer organisations disagree with industry groups about the most useful system for labelling our foods.

The fight over how to label our food has never been more intense. On one side of the argument we have public health associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and consumer groups looking for effective solutions to address the growth of lifestyle diseases, including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. On the other side are the food industry associations eager to reassure consumers about the nutritional value and quality of their products.

What is not in dispute is that labels play an important role in providing information to consumers at the time when they are making crucial decisions about purchase and consumption.

Consumer demands for information provided on packaged food range from safety, composition, allergens, country of origin, nutritional merit, as well as information about how the food was produced.

However, label real estate is at a premium, and there are also certain requirements imposed by national and international regulations that food labels must meet.

The food label review and its recommendations

To help provide some clarity to both consumers and food manufacturers, the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council set up the National Review of Food Labelling in October 2009 to examine the structure, format, accuracy and appropriateness of information on food labels.

The review panel chaired by Dr. Neil Blewett undertook a comprehensive investigation and an extended consultation process during which more than 6000 submissions were received. The panel released their report in January 2011.

It made a series of 61 generally well-received recommendations. A primary recommendation related to defining an issues hierarchy to guide development of food labelling policy. For the first time, preventive health was identified as a primary issue of concern in the hierarchy – just below food safety and above new technologies and consumer values issues.

As a result, a number of the recommendations related to nutrition quality issues, including the need for a simple interpretative front-of-pack nutrition labelling system and a clear preference for the use of a traffic-light system.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations relating to the traffic-light labelling system were immediately rejected by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC).

The AFGC has been agitating for some time against the adoption of such a system, preferring instead to promote their own Dietary Intake Guide (DIG) labelling system.

The food industry does not oppose the introduction of front-of-pack nutrition information but rejects the traffic-light labelling system. They claim the system is simplistic and liable to ‘unfairly’ classify many foods as nutritionally inappropriate.

Which label?

The argument over which front-of-pack labelling system should be adopted has been raging for some time, but was escalated in 2006 when the Australia New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council asked for the establishment of a Front of Pack Labelling Working Group.

Most public health-related associations, NGOs and consumer organisations support the use of the multiple traffic light system and the food industry became concerned that this may become the preferred or default system of front-of-pack labelling in Australia.

They reacted by producing their own labelling systems based on the percentage of the recommended intake levels for specific nutrients that each food product provides.

A plethora of such systems began to appear on the front of packaged foods in Australia around this time, with each system carefully constructed to present the best attributes of the particular product. Eventually the AFGC was able to convince the industry to develop a uniform front-of-pack labelling system – DIG.

The AFGC would like this system to be widely adopted so governments find it difficult to roll it back or impose any other system. A number of AFGC member companies have adopted the DIG system and over 3000 products now use this way to provide nutrition information.

Traffic lights explained

Traffic light guides have been used for many years as an educational tool to indicate the nutritional merit of certain foods. The United Kingdom Food Standards Authority (FSA) first proposed a formalised colour-coded traffic-light system for front-of-pack labelling in the early 2000s. It was based on a program of work from Oxford University, which examined the most effective ways to provide a simple profile of the nutritional value of food products.

The system categorises the four key nutrients most associated with public health issues – fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt – as high, medium or low compared to the recommended level of intake of these nutrients.

These ranks are portrayed as red, amber or green traffic lights on the package. Another light is sometimes included in the signpost for energy content, but it is not a core criterion.

As the UK is subject to European food regulations, the FSA could only recommend that manufacturers voluntarily adopt the traffic-light labelling system.

Its recommendation was initially taken up with support by the major supermarket chains whose own brand products control a large portion of the UK food market. Although some UK supermarkets have now developed their own front-of-pack labelling systems, over 10,000 products still use the Food Standard Authority’s traffic light system.

The traffic light system is designed to promote a comprehensible message of moderation by encouraging consumers to select food items with more green or amber lights and limit those with red lights. Sales data from the UK suggests this system may be effective, despite choices also being influenced by other factors such as price and promotion.

For instance, sales of breakfast cereals with mainly green lights or amber lights are growing twice as fast as breakfast cereals in total, and frozen meals with red lights on the label have experienced a 35% decrease in sales. Similar effects on sales have been reported for other products.

The heart of the matter

Amid the heat, it is easy to lose sight of the aim of a food labelling system. In practice, food labelling may be used as a persuasive promotional tool, or to provide useful information to consumers on the nutritional status of a product.

Research around which system is of most benefit to consumers is mixed and can often be confusing because different studies pose different questions, are conducted within different samples of consumers and produce results that appear contradictory.

What’s more, much of the recent research on this issue has been undertaken or funded by food industry groups and this work tends to support the industry’s preferred DIG approach.

Both systems have benefits and limitations. When asked directly which system they prefer, consumers may opt for the DIG approach on the basis that they feel it provides more information.

However, when asked to utilise the different systems to help choose the most nutritionally appropriate option among a selection of foods, the traffic-light system usually demonstrates clear superiority.

This is especially so in low-income or less educated population groups, who must be considered a major focus of any front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems because of the link between socioeconomic status and lifestyle diseases.

Public health in the hands of industry?

The food industry in Australia is quick to highlight the rejection of the traffic-light system by the Parliament of the European Union in favour their preferred DIG approach to labelling. This rejection came despite the traffic-light system having the strong support of EU public health and consumer agencies.

The strength of the European food industry’s opposition to the traffic-light system is illustrated by the volume of scientific reports produced by food industry bodies in Europe and the intensive lobbying of EU parliamentarians around the time of the vote.

Corporate Europe Observatory, a Norwegian NGO, estimated that the industry spent one billion Euros on lobbying on this issue. This figure was rejected by industry, but it did not back away from its right to contact parliamentarians and provide information in support of its position on this important public health issue.

It is unlikely that we will see the same level of industry financial investment in preventing traffic-light labelling in Australia, but the commitment to an oppositional position is just as strong.

The AFGC has consistently attacked the merit of the traffic light system in public forums, websites, press releases, published reports and submissions to governments. It is now running a series of television advertisements about the merits of the DIG system and has engaged high profile food producers to support its cause.

An assessment of submissions to the Blewett Inquiry shows that eight out of ten food industry submissions directly opposed the traffic-light system. Meanwhile, there was almost unanimous support for traffic lights from a wide range of public health, medical and consumer organisations, as well as state government agencies.

The fact that the National Review of Food Labelling only recommended the voluntary introduction of traffic lights – unless a product makes a health claim – has not dimmed industry opposition and it can be assumed that government lobbying has already been ramped up.

It would be useful if the identification of such a clearly contentious but important public health issue led to increased support for objective research and analysis in relation to agreed population outcomes.

Past experience has shown, however, that scientific objectivity is often less persuasive than other forces in decisions around public policy