Is the food labelling traffic light scheme a hit or miss?

Food politics
New food labelling guidelines are being introduced, based on a simple traffic light system. But will they work?

For years, food labelling has been confusing, inconsistent and, ultimately, not that helpful.

There have been several different schemes in use, ranging from mind-boggling boxes filled with stats and figures about daily allowance, through to pseudo-colour coding that varied from place to place, sometimes on the front of the pack, sometimes on the back. This all left the consumer with no easy way to compare like with like, which is a sorry state for such an important area of public health.

Consumer groups, governments, producers and retailers have debated this for decades, but with so many different vested interests, agreement has proved unsurprisingly elusive, until now.

Yes, there’s some agreement on a new scheme, and it’s a good one, but the whole exercise has a significant Achilles’ heel …

The new food labelling scheme is very simple indeed. It’s based on a traffic light system of colour coding that presents recommended daily allowances – the amount of each component that it’s generally accepted is safe and healthy to eat in a day – with a clear red, amber or green code.

This simplicity is important … purchasing decisions happen in seconds, and nobody – nobody – has the will to read through and understand an old-style box of dense percentages in the aisles of a supermarket. Colour coding gives a quick indication, and helps make choice more informed. Very simple.

The main advantage of this new scheme, and all it really achieves, is a level of standardisation across some brands. The labels look the same wherever and whatever you buy.

But there’s a catch, and it’s a massive one. A huge, multinational vested interest sat in the corner, refusing to take part.

This scheme is still voluntary, and while it’s been taken up by about 60% of producers and retailers, 40% have neglected to take part, presumably because the labels on their products would look a little too, well, red.

There are some big players taking their ball home, including Cadbury and Coca Cola. I can understand Cadbury’s reluctance, but Coca Cola? The red labels they’re hurtling towards would be well camouflaged on those Coke cans …

Both Cadbury and Coca Cola have released dodge-the-issue statements saying that they favour recommended daily allowance systems instead, just the schemes that are tricky to understand quickly and not that clear at a glance, so no surprises there.

So, what are we left with? A voluntary system that a huge chunk of the food industry want nothing to do with, that has no regulatory teeth whatsoever.

A minority of tiresome people will reject the very idea of food labelling of any kind as some kind of bizarre infringement on their right to do whatever the hell they want, but they’ll miss the point that there’s no compulsion involved – they can still eat forty packs of crisps a day if they want, red labels or not. Others, equally tiresome, will want more, will want tough regulation, backed up with legal obligations and consequent censure.

Neither are right.

As with most things, the best option lies somewhere between the two opposing extremes, and this scheme is a good start, a big step forward.

No, mandatory schemes aren’t the right thing, but consistency across those who choose to label is, and consistency leads to familiarity, and better understanding. People will start to question why that product is labelled and that other one isn’t. They’ll make their own judgment about why that is, and they might look a little more closely at the smokescreen carefully created by certain brands, to question it.

They’ll compare this with that, and they’ll come to their own conclusions.

I don’t expect for a second that some of these reluctant producers are ever going to accept a standardised traffic light scheme – they’ve got too much to lose from such openness – but I do expect them to come under renewed pressure to either join, or label more clearly, and that pressure forces questions that will need to be answered.

And answers lead to transparency, and that’s what’s needed.