all the big supermarkets except Iceland have signed up to a Government-backed scheme to introduce a universal system of food labelling which will come into force next year.
Health campaigners have long argued for a consistent system of food labelling, arguing it will help consumers choose a balanced diet and fight back against obesity.
However, some food producers and nutritionists say that the system will penalise certain natural foods such as salmon and butter, while directing consumers to heavily processed foods such as low-fat products and diet soft drinks, which may be lacking in the nutrients needed for good health.
While food standards is a devolved issue, the new labelling system, which will be voluntary, will be rolled out UK-wide. Manufacturers Kelloggs and Nestle have already said they will not participate, saying the proposed labelling is “negative”.
A spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency Scotland said: “The front-of-pack labelling scheme being proposed is a hybrid scheme which includes colour coding, guideline daily amounts and the text ‘high, medium, low’. Currently 80 per cent of processed foods sold in the UK carries some form of front-of-pack labelling, but consumers find the differing formats confusing. A consistent and clear label will allow consumers to make informed choices about the food they are buying.”
Scottish Minister for Public Health Michael Matheson said: “This new format will make it easier for us all to keep track of what we eat and choose healthier products. We have fought long and hard in the interests of our consumers, and consistent labelling is the best outcome possible.”
The minister said the new labelling scheme was just one of a raft of measures designed to promote healthy living and combat the obesity crisis.
According to the Scottish Health Survey released last month, almost two-thirds (64.3 per cent) of adults in Scotland are overweight or obese. More than a quarter (27.7%) of respondents were classed as obese. And only two-thirds of children (65.6 per cent) had a healthy weight – down from 70.3 in 1998.
Consumer organisations and health campaigners such as the British Heart Foundation have welcomed the move to introduce a nationwide system of labelling.
Peter Hollins, chief executive at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This is a quantum leap for public health and the result of tireless work by health campaigners and positive action by our governments.
‘It’s now down to each and every retailer and manufacturer to step up and introduce these consistent front-of-pack food labels, including traffic light colours, so shoppers can make healthy food choices at a glance.’
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “With levels of obesity and diet-related disease on the increase, it’s vitally important that people know what’s in their food so that they can make an informed choice.
“Which? has campaigned for years for traffic light labelling so we’re pleased the Government has now decided to support this and that every major supermarket except Iceland is committed to the scheme.”
The British Dietetic Association chairman Helen Davidson said: “The BDA wants consumers to have access to clear, consistent, at-glance information to help them to make informed choices about the food they buy and eat. Consumers need a quick understanding of the relative healthiness of a product. We welcome today’s announcement by the Government about front-of-pack labelling. This is a significant step forward.”
However, some food campaigners and food producers fear the new guidelines could direct consumers towards more highly processed foods at the expense of fresh and natural ingredients which may contain essential trace elements and vitamins.
Clare Cheney, director-general of the Provision Trade Federation, whose members include Dairy Crest and cheesemaker Lactalis McLelland, said: “I think it is very worrying. Virtually all cheese would have a red traffic light for fat and salt. Our members make cheese, yoghurt, meat and butter, all of which are part of a healthy diet.”
The scheme will not recognise healthy fats such as those contained in olive oil and oily fish, meaning potentially healthy foods such as salmon and mackerel could be labelled red for danger.
Fife nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton said there was a problem with certain healthy foods being demonised. “I am glad it is going to be a combination of guideline daily amounts and traffic lights, but I have a few concerns. Something like salmon, which is high in fat, is going to be labelled red. But it is also high in Omega 6. It is pretty impossible to get salmon into green.”
She said she was also concerned the traffic light system could take away the incentive for manufacturers to make their products healthier by reducing salt content if the end result would not change them from red to amber or amber to green.
Dr Ruxton said she was happy the new labels would include both traffic lights and guidance daily amounts, but said labelling will not necessarily direct consumers towards foods containing nutrients which could improve health, such as selenium, calcium and vitamin D.
“Food labelling helps, but it has limitations. My experience as a nutritionist suggests people respond best to positive advice and there is no space for that at all,” she added.