UK traffic light food labelling accused of impeding the free movement of goods

The EC has formally opened infraction proceedings against the UK for its’ voluntary 'traffic light' food labelling system. This is the grading of how much fat, saturated fats, sugar, and salt are in that food by use of red (high), amber (moderate) and green (low) colours. The UK has 2 months to respond, roughly the end of November 2014.

The adoption of this voluntary labelling system by most major retailers in the UK has meant that this scheme has become very much part of regulation-like or ‘regulation-lite’ creep for many food producers. Reformulations tend to be driven more by what colour band or claim criteria a product will fall within than any adaptions to nutrients over and above this.

Earlier this year a large number of member states including Spain and Greece and led by Italy accused the traffic light scheme of impeding trade in the single market.  The scheme does not differentiate between different sorts of foods and is stated to be over-simplistic and a hindrance to marketing traditional foods, such as cheeses, salami and olive oil, as they would have a ‘red light’ due to their high fat content.

EU food labelling regulation 1169/ 2011 specifically states that whilst national measures may be permitted, they should not prohibit, impede or restrict the free movement of goods that are in conformity with EU law.  Any health or nutrition claim, explicit or implied, is covered by regulation 1924/2006 which applies strict criteria.

The difficulty of dividing up individual foods according to a nutrition criteria when they should be viewed as part of a general diet continues to perplex the EU who missed their deadline for nutrient profiles for foods bearing claims in January 2009.

The loophole, by which colours that consumers generally perceive to represent ‘stop’ or a warning, and ‘go’, avoid being an implicit health claim because they are part of a national scheme has always been difficult to substantiate.  Even more controversial was the argument some years ago that traffic lights should be part of national mandatory labelling legislation.

A proliferation of national schemes, particularly if adopted by major national retailers, would divide the internal market and contradict the objective of the level playing field that EU Regulations 1169/2011 and 1924/2006 have sought.

Now as a pervasive voluntary scheme there is the argument that the UK traffic light system is hindering free trade. Perhaps it’s time for consumers to be educated on diet as a whole, alongside the mandatory ingredient labelling, (with mandatory nutrition labelling in a set form coming into force in 2016,) rather than for each food to be divided up and judged on certain selected constituent parts? The rival Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labelling that lost out to traffic lights as the national recommended scheme at least was based specifically within an overall diet. 

Personal responsibility and education should be given equal importance to additional voluntary food labelling measures by consumer groups and government. Voluntary labelling should be truly voluntary in a free single market but to a larger extent this is really in the hands of the major retailers and the policies they decide to adopt. However, the loophole of national schemes should not represent a barrier to the free market. Developments on this are awaited with interest.

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