Martin Hickman: Green light for diet colour code

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The Independent Online

Where better to start a column than with your breakfast? According to the Breakfast Cereal Information Service, two-thirds of us eat Shreddies, Cornflakes or another cereal every week and many of them are high in salt and sugar (up to 40 per cent sugar).

You can work out whether your breakfast is one of these "cereal offenders" by checking the packet. Best of luck. You may find the level of nutrients hard to find and, at that time in the morning, you will have to do some maths.

To start with, you will have to check the suggested portion size, which varies between manufacturers: 30 grams in the case of Nestle; 40 grams for Kellogg's. Then you will have to work out your serving's percentage of the daily maximum of salt, sugar and fat. You may wonder why you are working so hard. And you would not be alone: Kellogg's and Nestle are using a system of food labelling that has been shown, repeatedly, to be less effective than a rival.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched its simple Traffic Light labelling scheme three years ago after polling 2,600 people. The idea was that all manufacturers would introduce traffic lights (red for unhealthy, amber for OK, green for healthy) to help people make informed dietary choices.

But five multinational giants which make processed food, Kellogg's, Danone, Kraft, Nestlé and PepsiCo, said: "We don't like it. We have a better scheme". Months before the FSA launched its scheme, the manufacturers went with Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs), which express how much a serving contributes to fat, salt and sugar intake as a percentage.

Each manufacturer is allowed to use its own colour scheme and labels can be on the side or back of the pack, not the front (though some are on the front).

Which? did its own poll of 600 people and found that traffic lights were best. In 2007, the National Heart Forum, which represents British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and 60 other health groups, investigated GDAs, found them riddled with problems and headed its report Misconceptions and Misinformation.

So has the Government forced the manufacturers to drop the inferior scheme? No, it dithered. Alarmed by the prospect of shoppers being confused by an array of labels, the FSA did a deal with the £70bn British food manufacturing industry to set up an independent panel to find the best system on the tacit understanding that the rebels would accept its finding.

The boring-sounding Nutrition Signpost Evaluation Project Management Panel has finally reported. After 18 months of independent research – including polling and simulated shopping tests with more than 3,000 adults – the panel found (feign surprise here) that traffic lights was the best system. It suggested GDAs could be superimposed on the top of them, something the FSA has long suggested as a compromise to the food manufacturers and Tesco and Morrisons, which are also refusing to introduce the scheme.

The FSA now wants the Government to force everyone to use traffic lights. Perhaps it will, but there may be a general election in the meantime.

The shadow Health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has insisted that GDAs are best, even after the latest evidence. Why would that be? Someone mutters darkly that it must be because food companies are funding the Conservative Party. I've checked. The Electoral Commission has not received any notification from the Tories of donations from major food manufacturers in the five years to 2008 (though 2009 may be important for election donations). So we must assume that Mr Lansley really believes GDAs are the best way of checking whether your breakfast cereal is healthy.

Heroes & Villians

*Every week I'll be naming a corporate hero and villain, drawn from my personal and professional life. No subject will be too large; or more likely too petty. So on to this week's heroes and villains:

Villains: Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Wilkinson's factor 15 sunscreens. Which? found all three had an SPF under 10. M&S and Tesco said Which? was wrong. Wilkinson's announced an investigation. (The best buy was Asda's £3 Sun Lotion Protection System SPF 15, with an SPF of 24).

Hero: Micro Scooters Ltd. A child's scooter breaks. Within days, for the modest sum of £2.49, the spare parts arrive with a cheerful note and instructions. Efficient, environmental, polite.

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