The food industry is finding itself increasingly under pressure from legislators as a result of the obesity crisis, which has seen the number of clinically obese in the UK triple in last 20 years. The sector is being accused of contributing to the proliferation of a condition that a House of Commons Select Committee recently estimated was costing the taxpayer £7.4 billion a year in the UK alone.
Food labelling has therefore become a key battleground, with the debate centring on whether the food industry is doing enough to inform the consumer about the nutritional value of a certain product. In fact some like Jeannette Longfield, coordinator of UK food pressure group Sustain, believe that the food industry is still getting away with murder.
"Take this jar of mayonnaise," she told www.foodproductiondaily.com. "It says 'light' on the label, but this is not a legally defined term. It doesn't mean low fat - after all this is mayonnaise. Another company could use the term to mean 'light in colour.'"
Although any food company must back any statement up with nutritional information, Longfield believes that such terms as can be misleading, and are irresponsible in light of the current obesity crisis.
"They talk about nutritional information, but what does this actually mean? Who knows if the fat content is really high or low, or that to get the correct salt level you need to multiply the sodium level 2.5 times?"
Sustain favours the introduction of a traffic light system - red, yellow and green labels that would denote whether a food product was high medium or low in fat.
"People are frustrated at incomprehensible labels," said Longfield. "People don't understand them. So why can't we have something simpler?"
The traffic light system has been knocking around for decades, but has come to prominence recently following a Health Select Committee report in May 2004 that refuted the claims frequently cited by the food industry that there are no such things as healthy or unhealthy foods, only healthy and unhealthy diets.
Instead, it recommended the introduction of legislation to effect a 'traffic light' system for labelling foods according to criteria devised by the Food Standards Agency, which should be based on energy density.
The report argued that such a system would make it far easier for consumers to make easy choices, as well as acting as an incentive for the food industry to re-examine the content of food, to see if, for example, fat or sugar levels could be reduced to move a product from the 'high' category into the 'medium' category.
The question is, would it work. UK retailer the Co-op currently uses a traffic light system developed by Dr Mike Rayner, and Longfield suggests that the system works perfectly well.
"In fact the extra words: 'high', 'medium' and 'low' are, under strict EU law, extra words and therefore illegal," she said. "I think the Co-op wanted to be taken to court to highlight the issue, but it never was."So if it is good enough for the Co-op why does the rest of the food industry seem so allergic to the concept?"Policy should be based on sound science," argued Kevin Hawkins, director general of the BRC following the Health Select Committee's recommendations last year.
"The 'traffic light' approach leads to artificial segregation of foods by attacking staples of our diet such as meat and dairy products. Such wrong thinking has no scientific underpinning and could lead to serious unforeseen consequences for individuals such as a dangerous fall in their iron or calcium intake. It could also lead to an increase in eating disorders.
"If 'traffic light' labelling were adopted, it could mean some consumers actually become less healthy, as has happened in Sweden where 'traffic lighting' has been the law for some time."
In Parliament recently, Conservative MP Andrew Lansley pounced on traffic light labelling as a "half-baked" idea and questioned whether it was workable.
"If a wholemeal bread roll is low in sugar, moderate in fats and high in salt, would it merit a green, amber or red light?" said Lansley, calling on health secretary John Reid to clarify how seriously the government was considering the system.
Christine Fisk, spokesperson at the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF) agrees. "I don't think the traffic light system would work," she said. "A product like cheese for example, which has a high fat and salt content would be red, but cheese can be a vital part of a healthy diet."
Nonetheless, the FSA is reported to be considering a pilot scheme in the next few months, but the adoption of the system would be voluntary. However, both Sainsbury and Tesco supermarkets are working on a traffic light-style code to flag up healthier products. The food industry though remains better disposed to daily amount guidance.
"Guideline daily amounts would be a better system," insists Fisk. "We need to educate consumers about a healthy balanced diet."Longfield argues that the traffic light system could be adapted to include a degree of flexibility. She gives the example of mackerel, an oily, fatty fish that is high in healthy omega-3 oils. "This does add some complication," she admits. "But the labelling could be made more sophisticated, with fat levels split into, say, saturated and unsaturated."
But this exposes the main problem behind the logic of traffic light labelling. Its great selling point is its simplicity for consumers, but if this simplicity compromises vital nutritional information that needs further explanation, then it is difficult to see how this is a great leap forward from current labelling legislation.
Pressure groups campaigning for the food industry to take more responsibility over the current obesity crisis might therefore be well advised not to concentrate exclusively on this issue in order that they do not miss the bigger picture.