Supermarkets refuse to adopt 'traffic light' labels

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A row erupted yesterday over the refusal of two of the big four supermarkets, Tesco and Morrisons, to adopt a "traffic light" food labelling system designed to give customers clear information about nutritional content.

Consumer groups said shoppers would be confused by the decision of Britain's biggest and fourth-biggest grocer to use their own labelling system rather than join the national scheme proposed by the Food Standards Agency. The FSA confirmed that it was recommending the food industry to put red, amber and green warning signs on processed foods to indicate high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar on ready meals, pizzas, breakfast cereals and sandwiches.

Extensive research during 20 months of planning showed that customers found "traffic lights" the easiest way to check the goodness of foods, the FSA said. "We all lead busy lives, so making healthier choices when shopping needs to be quick and easy," said Deirdre Hutton, the FSA's chairwoman. "Developing a consistent way of clearly highlighting how much fat, sugar and salt a food contains will make it simpler for people to put healthy eating into practice."

Asda, Sainsbury's, and Waitrose confirmed their intention to use variations of the traffic light system for their own-label goods. Sainsbury's scheme, the "Wheel of Health", is already in operation for 1,200 products while Waitrose is introducing a system based more closely on the FSA model from next week; Asda's plans are not as far advanced.

Tesco, which controls 30 per cent of the UK grocery market, has announced that it will use its own rather than the FSA's nutritional labels. Morrisons said it was reviewing its labelling.

Tesco's refusal follows last month's withdrawal from the FSA scheme by the food manufacturers Kraft, Danone, Kelloggs, Nestlé and PepsiCo. It leaves most of the food industry in opposition to the proposals. Many food manufacturers favour labels stating percentages of guideline daily amounts - without any colours.

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, said traffic light coding was "potentially misleading".

Tesco, which also uses the daily allowance system, warned that the "simplistic" labelling could confuse customers, saying the sugar content of both cola and apple juice would be amber. A spokeswoman said: "We also found that red is taken to mean stop/danger rather than warning/consideration and could mean that people eliminate foods from their diet".

The Public Health minister, Caroline Flint, adopted a conciliatory stance saying officials needed to work with manufacturers and retailers to ensure a consistent approach.

The National Consumer Council's food expert, Sue Dibb, said the traffic light system was proven to work well for busy shoppers. "It has the potential to make healthy choices easy choices for all of us," she argued. She said a range of different labels would be confusing.

Peter Hollins, of the British Heart Foundation, warned that the FSA scheme would fail unless industry fell into line. "If they refuse to adopt this scheme, it will be a sign that the industry can't be trusted to regulate," he said.