News Analysis: Traffic lights or GDAs?

To help customers, some companies are now saying food packaging needs both systems, writes Jane Bainbridge.

The way in which consumers are given nutritional information about food has become a battleground. Since the Food Standards Agency (FSA) gave its backing to the traffic-light system of nutritional labelling rather than GDAs (guideline daily amounts) last year, retailers and food manufacturers have been taking sides in the debate.

While the supermarkets have split between camps (see box) - the Co-op being the most recent to add traffic lights to its Simply own-label range - food manufacturers have presented a united, pro-GDA front, reviling the traffic-light system for 'demonising' foods.

But with both McCain and New Covent Garden Food Company breaking ranks in the past fortnight by announcing they would be putting traffic-light labels on packs, the issue of which system is best for consumers looms large.

Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King lashed out at those such as Tesco for adopting the GDA system earlier this month, arguing that GDA tables are too confusing, and that its research suggested two-thirds of shoppers did not understand the percentages.

Each of the retailers and manufacturers that have made decisions on which scheme to adopt has argued it is doing what its research says customers want. This is either a reflection of the complexity of the information, leading to consumers giving conflicting responses, or the companies are phrasing the questions in such a way as to get the answer that suits their purposes.

McCain and Asda are the only brands so far to have gone for the maximum-information route by using both schemes.

McCain's reworking of its portfolio has included packaging, ingredients and, crucially, the addition of a nutritional label on the front of pack that includes both traffic lights and GDAs. Despite going against the tide of opinion on its labelling, communication director Simon Eyles says it was under no pressure to conform, and the decision it made was on the basis of its own research and desire to do the best for its business and its consumers.

'There are benefits to both traffic lights and GDAs, as people are becoming aware of them,' he says. 'We think the whole "which camp are you in" argument is an industry thing, but we have to be consumer-focused. Which camp is the wrong question; if you're trying to be open, honest and helpful, it's a simple decision to put both on the pack.'

The traffic-light system works well for McCain and New Covent Garden, as it highlights the healthier nature of their products. For McCain, this has worked particularly strongly in its favour, as many shoppers would have assumed chips would be a 'red-light food', which is not the case for McCain. But for some food manufacturers, many products, if not their entire portfolio, run the risk of being labelled with a red light.

If Sainsbury's figures are anything to go by, the consequences of red-lighting foods could be dire: some of its red-lighted frozen ready meals have seen sales dip 35% year-on-year.

So it is not surprising the Food and Drink Federation is developing an ad campaign to promote GDA labelling. It won't reveal how the ads will be funded yet, saying only that they are to help consumers understand how GDAs work.

Indeed, the essence of nutritional labelling is to enable the consumer to make better food choices. Yet how many companies are truly taking a stand and battling for the interests of these, their most important stakeholders?

Whitney Ertel, board director, food and nutrition division at PR agency Ketchum, who works with Masterfoods, says most retailers and manufacturers are making genuine efforts. 'It's a confusing topic and the challenge is that no consumer buys all their foods from one manufacturer or one country,' she adds.

Malcolm Gooderham, deputy managing director of corporate communications at Weber Shandwick, which handles PR for Nestle, concurs. '(The uptake of these schemes) is a clear demonstration that retailers and manufacturers are trying to meet consumer demand for more information,' he says.

'Which supermarket goes with which scheme probably goes over the head of most consumers. If I were advising Sainsbury's, I'd probably encourage it to promote its own scheme and be positive, rather than attacking others.'

Gooderham adds that if the industry has gone from a position of nothing on the front of pack to something, then it is a move forward. 'If companies display more product information that is transparent and accurate, they are being responsible; you miss the point if you obsess about the exact label.'

Yet that is exactly what the government is doing. Decisions on labelling are currently voluntary and statutory labelling can only be enforced by the European Commission. But this autumn, Ofcom will issue its statement on restricting TV advertising of food to children, with decisions on which ads to restrict potentially related to a form of the traffic-light system.

'We have to decide whether the restrictions are based on volumes of advertising or scheduling, or whether to go for restrictions based on nutrient profiling as defined by the FSA,' says Ofcom director of communications Matt Peacock.

No matter what Ofcom decides, until a consensus on labelling is reached, the only guarantee is that it will continue to be difficult for shoppers concerned with the healthiness of their food to decide which products to put in their basket.

DATA FILE - FOOD LABELLING

Traffic lights: Co-op, New Covent Garden Food Company, Sainsbury's, Waitrose

GDAs: AG Barr, Britvic, Calypso, Campbell's, Coca-Cola, Danone, Gerber, Kellogg, Kraft, Masterfoods, McDonald's, Morrisons, Nestle, Nichols, PepsiCo, Shloer, Somerfield, Sunny D, Tesco, Tropicana, Unilever

Both: McCain, Asda.

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