We need traffic light food labels across Europe - says MEP
by Glenis Willmott
Some of the big multi-ational companies will only change their ways when we say to them that in order to sell their food in the world's biggest trading bloc, they have to be honest about what is in it – writes MEP
Finally the British government has agreed to recommend the use of 'traffic light' food labels. I am delighted by the news although not at all surprised that the conclusion was, after long consultation, that the colour-coded scheme is best for consumers.
Labelling fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt as red for high content, yellow for medium and green for low is a simple way of getting an important message across. Increasingly, we are buying ready-made and processed food - and sometimes it can be impossible to know what is really inside it. Traffic lights tell you the basic information at a glance and allow you to quickly compare two similar products. If you want more information - it is there for you to study. But most people just do not have the time. For these reasons it is clear why consumers like traffic lights and why they find that the labelling helps them make healthier choices.
So I commend the United Kingdom government for finally recommending traffic lights and the work they have done persuading supermarkets, but I am disappointed with the way they have done it. When food labelling laws were being discussed by the European Union, the Conservatives were not exactly constructive. I put forward plans for traffic light labelling to be used on all processed foods, although these were vociferously opposed by Tory MEPs. My proposals were eventually defeated and now we are in the situation where the UK cannot oblige manufacturers to use traffic lights without changing EU legislation.
That is why the government is only recommending the scheme and it is up to individual supermarkets and food manufacturers to sign up, or not. After a lot of discussion, the supermarkets are now finally on board with only Iceland refusing to join. Less ambitious retailers have only just adopted traffic lights; however, it has not been a big leap because pioneers in clear labelling have shown them the way. These supermarkets have been using the scheme for years and have found that their customers like the labels. Yes, they discourage shoppers from buying too much of certain products, but they also boost sales of healthier options.
However, so far food manufacturers have been reluctant to sign up. Of course supermarkets now have the leverage to demand products with the traffic light labels and many manufacturers will end up adopting the voluntary scheme in order to keep their contracts with supermarkets. The problem comes with the big multinational food companies who prefer to hide behind the confusing 'guideline daily amounts' labelling scheme. If we take the example of high-sugar fizzy drinks, we can see why. Most are sold in 500ml bottles but their GDA labelling is based on a portion of 250ml and, of course, most people drink the whole bottle in one go. So even though the label tells you that the drink contains 29 per cent of your daily sugar intake, you are actually consuming 58 per cent.
On the other hand, traffic lights are based on the amount of nutrient per 100ml; so these kinds of drinks would have a red light for sugar, whatever the portion size. No wonder some manufacturers are so keen to avoid using them. That is why I will continue to push for traffic lights on all processed foods sold in the European internal market. Some of the big multi-national food companies will only change their ways when we say to them that in order to sell their food in the world's biggest trading bloc, they have to be honest about what is in it.
Glenis Willmott MEP is leader, European Parliamentary Labour Party
All governments need to stop demonising high fat intake in general and saturated fats in particular. Why? Because there is no scientific evidence linking saturated fats to clogged arteries. Google: What has government done to our health: free press. What governments should be targeting are omega-6 industrial seed oils. Google: Vegetable oils promote obesity.
David Brown - Kalispell, Montana, USA