Consistent food labelling system is rolled out across UK

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 20 June 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f4010
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. 1London

Consumer and health groups have welcomed the new consistent labelling system for the fronts of packs of food that has been launched in the United Kingdom, although some have voiced concerns that the scheme remains voluntary.

The system combines traffic light colour coding and nutritional information showing the amount of fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar, and energy in a food product. The red, amber, green, traffic light system aims to give consumers key information at a glance. The label also shows how much of an adult’s reference intake (formerly known as guideline daily amounts) is in a portion.1

The scheme was first announced last October.2 Manufacturers such as Mars UK, Nestlé UK, PepsiCo UK, Premier Foods, and McCain Foods have now signed up to it, together with the supermarkets Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, the Co-operative, and Waitrose. However, other major manufacturers, including Coca-Cola and Cadbury, have not adopted the system, saying that they preferred to use guideline daily amounts rather than a traffic light system.

In July 2011 the European Union passed legislation making it compulsory for food labels to contain details of energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate, sugar, and salt levels.3 As a result of this new ruling, which comes into force in 2016, the UK government carried out a public consultation on a consistent pack labelling system.4

The public health minister Anna Soubry said that people are confused by the variety of labels used currently. “Research shows that, of all the current schemes, people like this label the most, and they can use the information to make healthier choices,” she said.

She added, “The labels are not designed to demonise foods with lots of reds but to have people consider what they are eating and make sure it’s part of a balanced diet. People will also at a glance be able to compare the same kinds of foods and see if there’s a healthier option—for example, if they are buying a ready meal.”

Soubry called on more manufacturers to sign up to using the label. A pledge to sign up to the pack labelling system will form part of the government’s Responsibility Deal with the food industry, which aims to reduce the prevalence of obesity.

Lindsey Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, welcomed the announcement and said it was a big step forward. But she added, “For this voluntary approach for food labelling to be the success we hope it will be, it needs to be evaluated to check it’s working as intended. At the moment it’s not clear how that will happen.

“The Faculty of Public Health would much prefer to see the law—rather than voluntary regulation—being used to make sure all food is clearly labelled with the traffic light system.”

The announcement has been broadly welcomed by consumer groups and health charities.

The British Heart Foundation’s chief executive, Simon Gillespie, said, “This is undeniably a first class scheme that will make it easier for shoppers to scan the shelves and make more informed choices about what’s going in their trolley.”

Richard Lloyd, executive director of the consumer organisation Which? said, “This labelling scheme will encourage food companies to do more to reduce the amount of sugar, salt, and fat in popular products.

“We hope that more food manufacturers will join the scheme so that their labels will be consistent and comparable to those on the front of the retailers’ own packs.”

The British Dietetic Association’s honorary chairwoman, Siân Burton, said, “The British Dietetic Association wants consumers to have access to clear, consistent, at-a-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.”

Head of nutrition at the Children’s Food Trust, Patricia Mucavele, said, “This scheme is an important step forward; to keep building on this, we’d like to see more work on labelling of foods marketed to children. Making sure this information is really meaningful for parents would be another great step, making it easier for families to choose healthier products.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f4010