Page last updated at 14:26 GMT, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 15:26 UK

Call for single food label system

Shopping basket
A variety of labelling schemes have emerged

A single food labelling system with many elements of the ones already in use should be adopted, experts say.

A Food Standards Agency-funded group looked at the issue of food labelling after different schemes have been adopted by retailers and manufacturers.

The group said not having a standard scheme was confusing for consumers.

It recommended a combination of words - high, medium and low - traffic light coding and guideline daily amounts (GDA) be adopted.

But it still remains to be seen whether the industry and regulators can come to some kind of agreement on the issue.

It's time for food companies to stop making excuses, support one system and ensure shoppers are given the 'at a glance' information they need
Peter Hollins, of the British Heart Foundation

Discussions will take place over the coming months, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the EU is also looking at the issue and can insist on Europe-wide rules.

Some retailers, including the supermarket chain Tesco, are using GDAs showing the percentage of daily recommended fat, sugar and salt intake each serving contains.

But the FSA has already said it favours a traffic light system where red means high levels of fat or sugar, which is used by the likes of Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.

And other stores, such as Asda, have adopted a hybrid of the two. The situation is further complicated by the fact that some branded products, such as McCains, also have their own systems.

The government has already said it wanted to see a single system operating and retailers and campaigners had both backed the establishment of the expert group to look at the issue.

The group, led by Sue Duncan, a former chief social researcher for the government, carried out large and small surveys as well as doing focus group work with shoppers.

They found that a system using the words high, medium and low, combined with a traffic light labelling system and GDA figures resulted in the highest level of understanding - 70% - among consumers.


The report said food labelling was valued by shoppers, although other factors such as brand loyalty, price and if the product had health claims were important.

The group said pensioners and the least educated were the groups that struggled to understand the labelling the most.

And the experts also said labels were more likely to be used when buying a product for the first time, when shopping for children and when trying to lose weight.

Ms Duncan said she hoped the findings would "provide a firm foundation on which to base future policy decisions".

Peter Hollins, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: "The current mish-mash of food labelling systems has confused the public about the nutritional value of the foods they're putting in their shopping baskets for too long.

"It's time for food companies to stop making excuses, support one system and ensure shoppers are given the 'at a glance' information they need."

Julian Hunt, of the Food and Drinks Federation, which represents the industry and has been pushing for GDAs, said the report was being "digested".

But he added it was important to consider what was also happening across Europe where GDAs are more popular.

"This is only one research study that will need to be considered carefully by policy makers both here and in Brussels."

Food label
The experts found this design of food label was favoured by the public

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