The most recent development in the UK

On 24 October 2012 the UK Department of Health announced that it would press ahead with a “hybrid” system of front-of-pack nutrition labelling for food products.  This follows a three month consultation with the food industry and other interested parties.  The next stage will be a period of discussion to finalise the detail of the system.

The details will be important because hybrid labelling is quite complex – room needs to be found not only for the colour-coded “traffic light” indications about the level of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt but also to give percentages of guideline daily amounts for each of these nutrients and also text saying “high”, “medium” or “low”.

What is the significance of this announcement?

At the moment, manufacturers and retailers have adopted a variety of voluntary front-of-pack systems according to their own preferences and their opinions about what is helpful for consumers.  However they are now being pushed in the direction of agreeing a standardised system by the 2011 European Food Information Regulation.  It is the impact of this Regulation that makes the eventual format of UK hybrid labelling so important.

From December 2016 the EU Food Information Regulation will require virtually all food and drink products to bear a nutrition label in the format that is already familiar.   Other nutrition information will only be permitted in the form of a front-of-pack repetition of either the calorie content alone or calories, fat, saturates, sugars and salt.  The way in which that front-of-pack repetition is presented is tightly constrained by the European Regulation unless the food business takes advantage of an alternative labelling scheme which meets requirements of Article 35 of the Regulation.

There are 7 criteria in Article 35, including that the method of presentation must be based on sound and scientifically valid consumer research, that it must have been developed as a result of consultation with a wide range of consumer groups and that there is evidence that the labelling system will be understood by consumers.   There is also a strong steer in Article 35 that these systems should be the subject of a recommendation from a Member State government.

This is what the Department of Health initiative is all about – creating an alternative for the front-of-pack nutrition information which meets the Article 35 criteria.  The current systems adopted voluntarily by manufacturers and retailers are unlikely to meet all the criteria, which will render them illegal from December 2016 when this aspect of the Regulation takes effect.

The future  

Once the new Regulation is in force food businesses will either have to give no front-of-pack nutrition information, or give information in the text-based format specified in the Regulation, use the format currently being development by the Department of Health. The only other option for food businesses would be to go through the process of developing an alternative method of presentation which meets the Article 35 criteria.

Realistically for future front-of-pack nutrition labelling, the Department of Health’s system will be the “only game in town”.   In consequence, food business should ensure they engage actively now – whether directly or through industry associations – in working with DoH to map out the detail of the new hybrid system.