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Food labelling debate on a collision course

By Anthony Fletcher , 04-Jan-2007

Some of the UK's biggest food manufacturers are launching a £4m campaign next Monday to promote GDA labels - a move that will reignite the debate over food labelling.

Danone, Kellogg's, Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo and retailers Tesco and Morrisons have joined together to promote the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) scheme, which they claim will help people 'make better-informed decisions about the food they eat'.

But this scheme has been described as fundamentally flawed by the UK's Children's Food Campaign.

 

Using figures from the department for education's skills for life survey, the orgnisation claimed this week that almost half of all adults (47 per cent) lack the numerical skills to use the percentages used in the industry's labelling scheme.

 

"The food industry will be aware that their new labels will be useless to almost half of adults and most children, who simply lack the complex mathematical skills to interpret them," said Richard Watts, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign.

 

"It is no wonder that the public find traffic light food labels simpler and easier to use."

 

But the companies behind the new campaign are confident of success. Called 'know whats going inside you,' the TV, online and print campaign - which will run between January and August - aims to explain how people can use Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labels to assess the calories, sugars, fat, saturates and salt that are suggested for a balanced diet.

 

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

 

To coincide with the campaign, 21 food and drink companies plus three major retailers have added GDA labels to over 10,000 product lines, which they claim amounts to nearly 40 per cent of UK retail food and drink packs.

 

"We have made it simple to compare what's inside thousands of everyday foods so you can choose what best suits your diet," said food industry GDA campaign director Jane Holdsworth.

 

But the Children's Food Campaign, which is coordinated by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, is highly critical of this approach. Campaigners such as the Children's Food Campaign see GDAs as far too complicated.

 

"The Food Standards Agency, when it compared its own 'traffic-light' labelling model against industry's 'per cent of GDA' labels, found that 62 per cent of people misunderstood 'percent of GDA' labels," said the Children's Food Campaign in a statement.

 

"In comparison, only 21 per cent misunderstood the 'traffic light' labels recommended by the Food Standards Agency."

 

The FSA's traffic light system is used by firms including Sainsbury's, Waitrose, the Co-Op, Marks and Spencer and Asda.

 

One of the main problems in this ongoing food labelling debate is that both sides appear to be so deeply polarised. For example, many in the food industry believe that, while the GDA scheme is criticised for being too complicated, the FSA's traffic light labelling scheme, 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 far too simplistic.

 

And in contrast to the statistics cited by the Children's Food Campaign, Kellogg's reported that in a survey it carried out in Autumn 2006, it found that 46 per cent of 911 people questioned were already aware of GDA labels compared with 21 per cent for traffic light labels.

 

A major issue for both sides of the debate is the fact that the industry still knows next to nothing about how such labelling is actually used on a day-to-day basis. To this end, 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.

 

She reported that consumers want easy to read labelling that doesn't leave anything out, and doesn't make them feel pressurised into buying or not buying something. For this reason, simple traffic lights and health logos were less liked because they 'lack complete information and / or are too pushy'.

 

"For example, many consumers like colour coding, but some regard reds and greens on food products as too coercive," said Wills.

 

EUFIC's study of European consumer research on nutrition labelling on food was conducted by Professor Klaus Grunert of Aarhus School of Business, Denmark. The review compiled consumer opinions from 58 different European studies carried out since 2003, sourced from industry, academia, retailers, non-governmental organisations, consumer groups and national governments.

 

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