Representatives of Unilever and the labelling programme Choices International were among those backing the WHO’s call for more harmonised labelling at an event in Geneva earlier this month, hosted by the World Trade Organisation.
“We need more harmonisation; we need more clarity,” said Francesco Branca, of the WHO’s department of nutrition for health and development. “There is quite a lot out there in the different countries.”
Branca said the WHO had been working with the Codex Committee on Food Labelling to amend the mandatory list of nutrients required on pre-packaged foods – with agreement eventually reached on sodium, total sugars, saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids.
He drew particular attention to problems with front-of-pack logos, which may use different nutrition references in different parts of the world, even though the logo may look the same.
“Regulation is probably a needed step, but there is a long way to go,” he said.
‘This is going to raise costs’
Unilever’s global regulatory affairs manager Paul Whitehouse pointed to a recent study that examined the effectiveness of 40 different front-of-pack labelling schemes, with standards defined either by regulation or by private initiatives.
“Apart from confusing people, it is problematic for business,” he said. “…Each single product variant comes with a cost overhead, and when each individual country wants nutritional information presented differently on the pack – and I mean here, the numbers, the data, or the visual representation – this is going to raise costs, and in the end, prices.”
He said that industry, governments and others needed to work together to harmonise nutrition information as soon as possible, in order to provide people with what was needed to help them make informed choices.
“We can’t go on inventing new approaches to nutrition labelling. Forty is already far too many,” Whitehouse added. “…We need leadership from global organisations and we need to know that what we’re doing is working.”
President of Choices International Foundation, Clémence Ross, said that the Choices logo was intended to help consumers make healthy choices, and also to encourage reformulation. Its criteria are decided by independent, non-industry scientists from around the world who work voluntarily for the programme.
“You need governmental support…You need industry to want to make a change in the companies themselves,” she said. “We have a very successful approach because everybody is round the same table – with different agendas sometimes, but really with one objective. This is working out well for us.”
She added that a proliferation of positive logos may be a problem. “It’s not for me to say which of these is good.”
Ross said that regulation also needed to be considered, if it is found to be the most effective option.
Colour coding ‘easiest to understand’
Referring to the UK traffic light label, WHO’s Branca mentioned the infraction proceedings recently opened by the European Commission.
He said: “This scheme has not been considered acceptable recently by the European Commission, but if you look at a comparison…this colour coding is the one that consumers find easiest to understand when there is complexity of information.”