What is the best front-of-pack labelling scheme?

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 7th May 2009

The food labelling debate has ignited again overnight, following the release of the largest study on the issue completed to date.

Commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, an independent group of experts completed an 18-month study to help determine the most effective policy going forward. A combination of traffic light labelling and Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) information was found to be the ideal front-of-pack solution.

Food labels

The group, known as the Project Management Panel (PMP), was responsible for assuring the integrity and robustness of the study, the aim of which was to evaluate the impact of the various FOP nutritional signposting schemes on consumer understanding and behaviour. The research was conducted by BMRB in association with the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

The main conclusions were:

* A single FOP (front-of-pack) scheme would be most helpful for shoppers, as the presence of different types of FOP labelling schemes in the marketplace causes shoppers difficulties in using them.

* Overall, the balance of evidence demonstrated that the strongest FOP label is one which combines use of the words ‘high, medium, and low’, traffic light colours and percentage of Guideline Daily Amount (GDA), in addition to levels of nutrients in a portion of the product.

* Shoppers who use FOP labels value them; they use them particularly if they are shopping for children, comparing different products, if they have a particular health concern (e.g. high blood pressure or diabetes), or if watching their weight.

* There is a generally high level of understanding of FOP labels, even among those who don’t tend to use them, which suggests that raising awareness of a single scheme could encourage increased use of FOP labels when buying food.

“This is the most comprehensive and robust evaluation of FOP signpost labelling published in the UK and internationally to date,” Chair of the PMP, Sue Duncan, said. “Using a scientific approach, the study has provided robust information on consumers’ actual understanding and use of FOP labels, rather than what they say they understand and do.”

“The final report provides valuable evidence on how consumers use FOP labels and what helps consumers to make healthier choices when buying food. It will provide a firm foundation for the FSA and other stakeholders on which to base future policy decisions on FOP labelling.”

The debate about food labelling has been largely similar in the UK as in Australia, with the food industry already largely committing to voluntary GDA information (often referred to as the Daily Intake Guide in Australia) and a coalition of health and consumer groups calling for traffic light labelling.

Policy responses

In the UK the FSA is poised to present their own recommendations to the Government based on this latest research. The Government will then commit to a single FOP scheme.

The EU is currently undertaking its own study, which is set to determine a policy response from the region, while Australia is about to embark on an independent review of food law and policy.

Industry response

“We are busily digesting the findings of the research published today. We are pleased it appears to show that consumers understand the labelling on the front of products and find it valuable in helping them make better-informed food choices,” Julian Hunt, Director of Communications for the Food and Drink Federation – which represents food manufacturers, said.

“As we have always said, the UK is leading the world on nutrition labelling and our voluntary approach – based on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) – is driving the debate across Europe, where a new labelling regulation is being developed.”

“This is only one research study that will need to be considered carefully by policy makers both here and in Brussels,” Mr Hunt suggested. “Only today, for instance, the European Food Safety Authority published a report that backs the science underpinning GDAs. And last week, the first results of a major EU project on labelling were published – and clearly demonstrated that GDAs are the most widely used scheme across Europe.”

Mr Hunt added that the issue of consumer health was something the industry was taking very seriously and went far beyond labelling.

“Labelling is only part of the answer to tackling society’s concerns about issues such as obesity: our members also continue their work on recipe changes, the developments of ‘better for you’ products and workplace wellbeing schemes designed to help people lead healthier lives,” he concluded.