Nutrition labelling evaluation aims to break deadlock

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

An independent evaluation of front of pack nutritional labelling in
the UK could help break the deadlock over which labelling system is
most effective.

The independent project management panel (PMP) will focus on shopping behaviour.

The project promises to be interesting, not least because there is growing realisation that the food industry still knows next to nothing about how front of pack nutrition labelling is actually used on a day-to-day basis.

European Food Information Council (EUFIC) director general Josephine Wills recently presented a thought-provoking review of research on consumer response to nutrition information on food labels in Europe from 2003 to 2006.

Although nutrition labelling has been a major instrument for providing consumers with information to help them make healthy, nutritionally appropriate choices, she told delegates at the recent CIAA conference in Brussels that there were indications that this information is often misunderstood.

What really struck home, she said, was the fact that there is still virtually no insight into how labelling information is, or will be, used in a real world shopping situation, and how it will affect consumers dietary patterns.

"We still have very little understanding into the cultural use of labelling,"​ said Wills. "And very little is known about the long term indirect effects of labelling."

Understanding on-pack nutrition information in isolation is very different from understanding what this information means in the context of a weekly shopping excursion, she said. Addressing this last point should therefore be a key priority of future research.

The PMP evaluation is an attempt to do just this. The study will be managed by a small group of independent experts in nutritional and social sciences, including market research, and will be chaired by Sue Duncan, head of the government social science research unit.

The scope of the evaluation and the membership of the panel has been agreed by the Nutrition Strategy Steering Group (NSSG) jointly chaired by public health minister, Caroline Flint and the Food Standards Agencys chair, Deirdre Hutton.

It will be the PMPs role to monitor the study, which is expected to start later in 2007.

"As chief government social researcher one of the purposes of my role is to champion the use of evidence in policy making,"​ said Sue Duncan, chair of the Project Management Panel (PMP).

"This project will ensure that the evidence needed in this high profile and significant area of work will be robust. The outcomes of the project we are specifying will potentially have wide ranging impact including producers, retailers and consumers and I am looking forward to being involved in such a high profile piece of work."

Hutton added that front-of-pack nutritional labelling is now firmly accepted by the majority of major retailers and manufacturers.

"The debate is now about which system works best for consumers, rather than whether there should be a system which is why we are committed to carrying out this study of impact on shopping behaviour in the market place."

This debate remains highly polarised however. Some of the UK's biggest food manufacturers launched a £4m campaign on Monday to promote GDA (guideline daily amount) labels, which they claim will help people 'make better-informed decisions about the food they eat'.

The GDA system tells consumers the percentage of the adult male Guideline Daily Amount of the four key nutrients that each product contains.

The FSA's traffic light system on the other hand, which rates each product as high (red light), medium (amber light) or low (green light) in the four key nutrients (fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar), is used by firms including Sainsbury's, Waitrose, the Co-Op, Marks and Spencer and Asda.

The results of the PMP evaluation could help bring the debate to a conclusion.

"The FSA, together with its industry and health charity partners, is committed to standing by the results of the independent study and will encourage all manufacturers and retailers to adopt whatever system is shown to be the most effective in helping shoppers to make healthier food choices,"​ said Hutton.

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