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Traffic light labelling too crude says food lawyer

By Anthony Fletcher , 13-Feb-2006

Food law experts at Eversheds have warned that the adoption of an industry standard for nutritional information looks increasingly unlikely.

Food firms have signalled that they intend to go it alone, partly because they feel that their interests have not been fully taken into account by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

For example, just as consultation on developing an industry standard labelling scheme ended this month, some of the UKs largest food companies announced that they would be developing their own food labelling systems.

The UK-based law firm suggests that this could adversely impact consumer ability to make informed choices.

"There is real concern within the food industry that the Food Standards Agency hasnt taken their feedback into account in developing a common system," said Owen Warnock, partner and food labelling expert at Eversheds.

"Therefore, its not surprising that we have now seen a number of leading brands and retailers take matters into their own hands. This is not ideal since it will make it harder for consumer to make like for like comparisons."

The FSA, which has conducted rigorous research with 2,600 consumers across the UK to test out four types of signpost labelling, concluded that the multiple traffic light scheme performed best for the majority of consumers at showing the key nutritional characteristics of a food simply and easily.These colour-coded labels tell consumers at a glance whether the products fall under government definitions of high, medium or low in salt, fat or sugar.

It was hoped that this initiative would be endorsed by the food industry. Warnock however shares the food industrys concern that such a scheme would be of major benefit to consumers.

"The proposed traffic light system is simply too crude and doesnt assist the consumer to make fully informed choices," he said. "For example, all brands of a food with high fat content might be labelled as red, providing no easily accessible information about which has the least fat."

Warnock is in agreement with the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which has backed food manufacturers promising to put Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) information on the front of their products. This would give consumers at-a-glance information and should form the basis for improved nutrition information across the industry.

"It seems likely that when the FSA announces its final proposal in March, their scheme will be ignored by much of the food industry which wants a system that is based on guideline daily amounts of various nutrients," said Warnock. "This would be much more meaningful for the consumer and workable for the industry.

"Enforceable regulation in this area can only come at a European level. Currently, there appears to be little movement in this direction, however I think there will in the end be Europe-wide regulation on this topic."

Eversheds and its world wide associate offices have over 2,000 legal and business advisers providing services to the private and public sector business and finance community.

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