Over manufacturer's objections the UK's food regulator yesterday approved a colour-coded nutritional labelling scheme for products.
The voluntary system is meant to harmonise food labelling across the industry in a bid to make it simpler for consumers to put healthy eating advice into practice.
Manufacturers are in general opposed to the system, instead saying that they support the use of "Guideline Daily Amounts" (GDAs).
However, moves by some major supermarkets to adopt the colour-coded scheme for private label might pre-empt manufacturers and push them into using it.
There is a danger that the competeting schemes might serve to sow further confusion in the market. Industry is also wary that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) might eventually seek permission from the European Commission to make the scheme mandatory.
The "signpost" scheme as the FSA calls it, would use green, amber and red to signal whether foods contain low, medium or high amounts of fat, saturates, sugar and salt.
The system will use nutritional criteria developed by the FSA to determine the colour code.
The system developed by industry, GDA, indicates the percentage of recommended levels of such ingredients an average person should ingest each day.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) yesterday said the manufacturing industry is committed to providing clear nutritional labelling to help consumers make informed choices.
"While industry has long made clear its belief that traffic light colour coding is potentially misleading for consumers, we agree with many of FSA's suggestions on the key elements for a successful front of pack nutrition labelling scheme," stated Martin Paterson, the FDF's deputy director general.
Processors support including separate information on fat, saturated fat, total sugars and salt, on nutrients per portion, and agreed nutritional criteria.
"FDF members are committed to GDAs which allow consumers to make their own decisions as to what products are most appropriate for them," Paterson stated.
About £15bn worth of products will have GDAs on the pack by end of 2006, the FDF stated.
"This consensus on the use of GDAs enables companies to develop consistent, complementary approaches to providing prominent on-pack information, including on the front of packaging," the FDF stated. "A substantial number of large manufacturers are now rolling out GDA-based front of pack labelling."
Waitrose and Sainsbury's have already adopted a scheme based on the FSA criteria. Asda will follow shortly, the FSA stated.
The FSA will continue to encourage other supermarkets and manufacturers to adopt the four core principles as the basis for their voluntary front of pack schemes. The FSA said it would work with food businesses and consumers to monitor and evaluate take-up and the impact of the scheme.
Deirdre Hutton, the FSA's chair said: "The evidence of buying patterns is that people are looking for healthier foods and they have told us that traffic light colours are key to helping them understand and use front of pack food labels."
The FSA said extensive consumer research shows that many people find the nutritional information currently found on the back of pack difficult to use.
"Although several supermarkets and manufacturers have already developed their own front of pack schemes, people say that they want a consistent approach endorsed by an authoritative, independent and trusted body such as the FSA," the regulator stated.
Victoria Brown, an FDF spokesperson, told FoodProductionDaily.com that in order to make the scheme compulsory the FSA would have to get approval from the European Commission.
Consumer groupWhich? said it welcomes the FSA's sign-post labelling scheme.
"A colour coded scheme is the best way of helping people to make healthier food choices quickly, easily and accurately," statedSue Davies, chief policy adviser for Which?
"The FSA recommendations are flexible enough for all the food industry to adopt," she stated. "It will help consumers to make more informed choices by showing at a glance whether foods are high, medium or low in fat, sugar or salt. However, manufacturers and retailers must use the FSA's nutritional criteria to ensure consumers get consistent information."
Jessica Burt, a solicitor at CMS Cameron McKenna noted that major food manufacturers, including Danone, Kellogg's, PepsiCo, Kraft, Unilever and Nestlé, have already adopted the GDA front-of-pack labelling scheme.
Tesco adopted the GDA labelling approach last January and Spar has begun putting GDA information on ready meal packaging.
Spar plans to introduce the signposting on all own label packaging by the end of the year.
"The test of the true voluntary nature of the labelling that the FSA has supported will come in seeing how these separate schemes are treated," she said. "Should the FSA seek to make the traffic light scheme in any way compulsory it will leave itself open to charges of irrationality for the underlying science and disproportionality in seeking to carve up the EU internal market."
She noted that the method of how any domestic scheme will be incorporated in the long term, either voluntarily or otherwise, will be reliant on the embattled proposed European Health and Nutritional Claims Regulation.
The regulation earlier this month had 269 amendments tabled against it by MEPs at its second reading.