Food industry sees red at traffic lights

In Brussels last week MEPs rejected the mandatory introduction of ‘traffic light’ labels on food and drinks. The red, amber and green colour codes would have indicated the relative amounts of salt, sugar, and fat on unhealthy products like ready meals and soft drinks, in order to help tackle dietary-related disease. The rejection was hard for some to take. Monique Goyens, Director General of the EU consumer group BEUC, said: ‘Despite being presented with a wealth of independent research confirming that the vast majority of consumers wanted the colour coding system, MEPs have mystifyingly voted against it.’  

Part of the mystery is revealed by the monumental lobbying campaign undertaken by the food and drink industry. The campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory reckon that the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU spent €1 billion opposing the traffic light system. One MEP from the UK, Struan Stevenson, even told the BBC how:  ‘The lobbyists have now penetrated the inner sanctum of the MEPs and they’re walking into our offices very often without any appointments at all. People are objecting to that and saying we should have more control about where lobbyists are allowed to go. But on this issue there are armies of them. I’ve never seen anything like it.’

Notwithstanding the army of lobbyists mobilised by the industry, a puzzle still remains over why the MEPs were ultimately convinced by its arguments. To shed light on this, we need to go back to the UK in the mid-2000s, when the traffic light system was first drawn up by a number of supermarkets. Endorsed by industry watchdog The Food Standards Agency, then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, even warned that the government would act strongly if the voluntary adoption of this system did not take off. Fearing the worst, food and drink manufacturers including Kraft, Danone, Kelloggs, Nestle and PepsiCo hurriedly launched their Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) label instead.

It was argued by these manufacturers that the traffic light system was not sophisticated enough and did not provide a good guide to a balanced diet. So for example, all chocolate bars would be branded red, suggesting that there was no place for sensible consumption of this product. This was termed ‘food profiling’ whereby colour alone would determine consumption. Their preference was to give more information to consumers, showing the amount the product contributed to a person’s recommended daily intake across a wider range of nutritional values. Evidence suggests that consumers take between 4 to 10 seconds making a decision about food products in supermarkets, factoring in not just health benefits but also price, quality, provenance and other factors besides. If ever a system rested on a conception of economic man – what Thorstein Veblen described as ‘a lightning calculator or pleasures and pains’ – this was surely it!

The reality was that the food and drink industry understood the power of impulse. For the same reason they promote vending machines and want their products to be the one on the checkout, industry was reluctant to adopt a system which offered an easier – albeit crude – means for consumers to decide what to buy. By contrast, the cacophony of information proffered by the GDA label generally left consumers confused or even dismissive of dietary concerns altogether. Nevertheless, with nutritional guidance addressed, the Blair government backed down on its threat. Fast forward to now and the situation remains much the same.

 A report issued this week by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence waded into the debate on food labelling and called for ‘progressive’ manufacturers and retailers to ignore the signals from Brussels and introduce the colour coded guidance.  The Food and Drink Federation responded by saying that NICE was ‘out of touch with what was happening’ noting that voluntary measures undertaken by the industry had already substantially brought down salt, sugar, and fat levels, as well as improving the quality of nutrition information available on packs. In short, this was no place for heavy-handed regulation.

Yet just as the reason the GDA label came in was to neutralise a more disruptive alternative, the reason that levels of unhealthy ingredients have been brought down was also shaped by the profit motive. The key difference was that in this case it was to open new markets rather than the protect existing ones. In a 2009 report entitled ‘Recipe for Change’, for example, the Food and Drink Federation noted that total sales of reformulated ‘healthy eating options’ were worth £8 billion in the UK alone, and in some areas were growing at twice the rate of the market as a whole.

Moreover, reformulated products were not only profitable in themselves, but, as demonstrated above, allow industry to present itself as addressing the health agenda. Again the reality is somewhat different. Coca-Cola’s introduction of sugar-free Coke Zero, for instance, has not taken consumers away from the core product but enlarged the market for soft drinks as a whole. In effect, companies don’t want consumers to see the healthy alternative to Coca-Cola as a piece of fruit, a drink of water, or maybe nothing at all, but rather a low-calorie (and nutritionally desolate) version of the original. Thus the paradox that the food manufacturers prey on is that more food choice often means less dietary change.

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