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Our World View: Traffic light food labelling signals integrity for consumers

Posted 24 June 2013

Ralph Early

A monthly comment from a member of staff at Harper Adams University.

Head of Food Science and Agri-Food Supply Chain Management, Ralph Early.

"So, food labelling is once again in the headlines. The Government recently announced that a revised ‘traffic light’ system of consistent front-of-pack information on grocery food products is to be introduced during the next 18 months. 

The new system will combine nutrition information with colour coding in a clearly visible and easily understandable form. This should allow consumers to make judgements at a glance about the energy and nutrient values of the products they are thinking of purchasing. But therein lies the rub for some food businesses.

Food product labels fulfil many functions. They provide a key point of communication between consumers and food manufacturers and retailers. They market food products with their creative designs and bright, eye-catching artwork. They tell consumers about products, what they consist of and how to store them. Importantly, they allow purchasers to know who takes responsibility for a product and who guarantees it with respect to matters such as product quality, food safety, provenance and authenticity. 

Many food labels also carry coding which allows products to be identified correctly such that they, and theoretically their ingredients, can be traced right back through the food supply system to the points of origin. This said, it should be remembered that in the case of most grocery food products it is the packaging itself that is identified and traced, and not the product inside. Inevitably, consumers must trust whosoever fills a food package that the product inside is genuine. Sadly, for many consumers and some food retailers this was not the case in the recent ‘horsegate’ scandal.

One of the most critical functions of food product labels is that of creating a bond of trust between consumers and those who make and sell food products. Food product labels are integral to the process of truth-telling that food manufacturers and retailers establish in order to attract and retain customers. The importance of this process and the integrity with which it is created and maintained cannot be understated. In a world where matters of food and environmental ethics are increasingly, and inevitably, taking centre stage, the creation of a relationship between consumers and the food industry based on integrity on the part of food businesses, and trust on the part of consumers, is paramount.

The aim of a lie is, in essence, to prevent knowing. Similarly, the aim of withholding information is also to prevent knowing. Here is revealed the dilemma that some food manufacturers face with the proposed new traffic light system. Not all food businesses have signed up to the system. Its use will be voluntary. Of those food manufacturers who have stated that they will not adopt the system, a number have said that they believe the display of daily guideline amounts is more useful to consumers in helping them to moderate consumption. 

But is this really true? Research will no doubt reveal the facts. In the meantime those manufacturers who do not adopt the new system will risk being accused of withholding information. They risk the accusation of intending to prevent consumers from knowing facts about products of direct relevance to their health and well-being.

If it were not for the fact that the diet-related health of the British population is assuming disastrous proportions, with increasing levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes placing an enormous burden on society, there would be no need for the new traffic light system. British consumers have not developed their diet-related health problems independently of the food industry. The industry is involved with the problem, and some sectors probably more than others given the nature of their products and the way they are marketed, especially to children and adolescents. 

To refuse to use the new traffic light food labelling system to help consumers know how much fat, sugar, salt and energy a food product contains risks interpretation that there is something to hide. Given the power of instant electronic communication, the media and the message today, it takes a brave chief executive to assume a position where the food business for which they are responsible appears wilfully to be withholding information of value to the health and well-being of consumers. Such chief executives would do well to reflect on the history of the tobacco industry and its record in matters of truth-telling."

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