The European Commission is investigating the UK's voluntary traffic light food labelling system following complaints from various European countries that it may negatively affect the market for certain foods across the EU.

The UK System

The UK traffic light labelling system is voluntary scheme that was introduced in June 2013 as a means to combat rising obesity levels.

The scheme is designed to allow customers to be able to easily tell if pre-packaged foods have high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt indicated by red, amber and green labels.

Whilst only voluntary, an increasing number of companies have adopted the system into their packaging including, most recently, SPAR UK and Coca-cola.

The EU challenge

A number of European Member States, including Spain, Greece and Italy, have challenged the UK system on the basis that it is potentially misleading to consumers and may have a negative impact on the marketing of certain foods such as traditional hams and cheeses.  The concern is that the traffic light system, which is the only one of its type in the EU, may affect discourage consumers from certain products and therefore affect the ability of manufacturers to freely trade their products throughout the EU.

The most publicised opposition has been from the Italian government, on behalf of Italian manufacturers and producers, who have argued that the simplicity of the system will mean export goods, such as Parmesan cheese, salami or prosciutto ham, will be adversely affected despite being relatively healthy items when consumed as part of a balanced diet.

The European Commission is now investigating these concerns and has asked the UK to provide information in respect of the scheme.  The main concern appears to be that the scheme may have oversimplified the content of pre-packed goods so that it is ultimately misleading to consumers and may negatively affect the market for certain products within the EU.  A good example of this is the affect the system will have on fizzy drinks which, whilst most people would argue are not a particularly healthy product, will generally be labelled with green 'lights' apart from a red light for sugar.

What now for the UK labelling system?

The European Commission has written to the UK government to request that the UK submit its observations in relation to the highlighted concerns.  The UK government has two months to prepare and present its case to the Commission before any further action will be taken.

It is likely the UK Government will argue that it is entitled to adopt voluntary labelling system and it serves valid health purposes.  An alternative system could utilise a green or black label system, much like the long standing keyhole labelling system in use in Scandinavia. The key difference between this and the UK system is that a green keyhole is only placed on a product if it complies with the standards of the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations.

A little comfort may be taken from the Commission's admiration of the UK government's commitment to tackling the growing obesity crisis in the UK. However, the Commission has to balance these concerns against the principle of free trade and to protect the internal market.

For now the UK Government will have to wait and see if its traffic light system will get a red or green light of its own.