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What's in a label?

Given the intense media interest in ‘Horsegate’ during the past year, the recent debate on the mandatory labelling of meat, where animals have been slaughtered by Halal or other special religious protocols, was perhaps of little surprise. On other labelling matters, recent research revealed that only a minority of consumers properly understood the meaning of ‘traffic lights’ on food labels.

The decision taken in Denmark in February to ban the practice of slaughtering animals without prior stunning, as practised under the Muslim (Halal) and Jewish (Schechita) religions, reopened the public debate here, with both criticism of and praise for the Danish action. 

During May, the news that Subway outlets were to replace bacon and ham with turkey based equivalents and companies such as Pizza Express and most major retailers were selling poultry and lamb products, without any indication that the animals had been slaughtered according to the Halal protocols caused uproar in the national media.

The British Retail Consortium, representing the major supermarkets said that “As the overwhelming majority of meat sold in UK supermarkets is own brand and from animals that have been stunned prior to slaughter, we do not see the requirement to separately label meat based on the method of slaughter.”

This statement did little to dampen the media interest and was followed by several politicians and religious leaders calling for mandatory labelling where religious slaughtering methods had been used.

Of course, the issue of food labelling and striking the correct balance between the information consumers are entitled to know about how their food is produced and the practical realities of incorporating this information in a readily intelligible manner on food labels is not a new one.

The debate about the mandatory provision of nutritional information on food labels has been running for many a year. Initially the discussion polarised between supporters of a system based on colour coded ‘traffic lights’ (‘red’, ‘amber’ and ‘green’) and an alternative measure of ‘guideline daily amounts’ or ‘reference intakes’ – both systems linked to the proportions of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt contained in the product.

During 2013, the Department of Health, following a lengthy consultation with industry, announced the launch of a ‘hybrid’ label combining ‘traffic light’ colour coding with additional information on ‘reference intakes’, for which they succeded in obtaining widespread support among food manufacturers and retailers

Recent research published by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, entitled 'Responsible marketing and food labelling' should cause some consternation among the proponents of the recently agreed nutritional labelling format. As reported in Marketing Week, the research, undertaken among 2,000 consumers in March, revealed significant levels of confusion and misunderstanding of the ‘traffic lights’ format.

Although 76% of the sample thought they had a good understanding of the ‘traffic light’ food labelling system…

• 51% thought that, if a product has all ‘green’ lights on but only one ‘red’, overall it is still ‘healthy’
• 67% thought that, if a product has all ‘red’ lights, it’s ‘unhealthy’ and should be avoided
• 37% thought that you should only have one product with red lights on per day

As we all know, all three interpretations represent a misunderstanding of sound dietary advice, based on a mixed and varied intake of essential nutrients (combined with an appropriate level of daily exercise, amongst other things).

While a ‘traffic lights’ based system represents an earnest attempt to simplify more complex dietary messages, if the misunderstandings identified in the research were followed slavishly, this could well lead to consumers having an extremely inadequate diet, lacking in nutrients essential to health and well-being.

Perhaps, the real lesson is that balanced information and education, delivered within a common sense and well targeted approach, must run alongside any universal ‘top down’ initiatives, such as ‘traffic lights’ labelling, to improve the nation’s health.

The urgency of this task was revealed in the latest set of data from the 'National Diet and Nutrition Survey' (NDNS) published by Public Health England (PHE), examining food intakes among key demographic groups of the population during the period 2008 to 2012. The results indicated that “overall the population is still consuming too much saturated fat, added sugars and salt and not enough fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre.”

The report also identified deficiencies in intake of Vitamin D among the whole population and iron among young girls and older women – not forgetting that meat provides a useful source of both these nutrients and would normally carry at least one ‘red’ traffic light on its packaging.

The concluding remarks of the PHE press release stated “the data released today provides compelling evidence that we all need to make changes to our diet to improve our health, especially for teenagers. Eating a healthy, balanced diet that is high in fruit, vegetables and fibre and low in saturated fat, sugar and salt, alongside being more active, will help you to maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.”