Poor take up of traffic light scheme makes the case for mandatory legislation

At our breakfast table this morning we had three packets of cereal, each with different labels about their respective ‘health’ content.

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Not only is this confusing, it came as something of a surprise given the effectiveness and simplicity of the Food Standards Agency traffic light labelling scheme. Launched over a decade ago, the system is easy to understand and clearly shows whether the fat, sugar and salt content is high (red), medium (amber), or low (green). Consumers are simply encouraged to choose foods with more ambers and greens. Given that shoppers take just a few seconds on average to select an item – the traffic light scheme is clearly aligned with consumer behaviour.

But while the scheme remains voluntary, alternatives proliferate, as the breakfast table shows, and an opportunity to change shoppers’ purchasing patterns for the better is lost.

Early adopters, including Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, report that the traffic light system works and drives consumers towards healthier choices. This is backed up by evidence from the Faculty of Public Health. So why the resistance from some retailers and food manufacturers? As long as these companies offer healthier alternatives, they will not lose out.

This issue is crucial to public health. The UK is the ‘fat man’ of Europe, with nearly two-thirds of our adult population classified as obese and about one-third of 10-11 year-olds obese or overweight. The World Health Organisation forecasts that these rates will rise sharply over the next decade. The cost is obvious, not only to the public in terms of poor health, early death and reduced enjoyment of life, but also to government in terms of the public money needed to tackle the wide range of obesity related illnesses.

The Local Government Association has called this week for the traffic light scheme to become mandatory. It is disappointing and frustrating that the voluntary approach to adopting a system with such clear benefits has failed.

Evidently the retailers and manufacturers of high fat/sugar or salt products may need make some changes to hang on to market share if purchasing patterns were to shift. But the sluggish response to acting in the wider interests of society only serves to make the case for mandatory legislation if we want our companies to be good corporations.

Leo Martin


Posted September 2016