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Food labelling wars

Labelling was once a dull technical matter. How did it get so controversial?

Chris Pile

Topics Politics

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‘Be active for 30 minutes’ is the message at the heart of the ‘Be Treatwise’ campaign launched by Cadbury Trebor Bassett and rival Masterfoods UK (Mars). The two companies are printing a panel of ‘rotating messages’ containing health advice on the back of their confectionery as part of a new drive to encourage consumers to lead a healthier lifestyle.

For the first time their packaging will also display official Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) for the recommended number of calories and the amount of sugar, fat, saturate and salt that each person needs, alongside the nutritional content of the product.

A second food-labelling scheme has been developed by Kraft, Danone, Kelloggs, Nestle and PepsiCo. The five manufacturers have announced a joint agreement to place labels on the front of all of their products, containing detailed nutritional information alongside the GDAs. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is following the sporty makeover of Ronald McDonald in 2005 by printing nutritional information on the packaging of its burgers and french fries.

Improved food labelling was identified as a key element in the government’s strategy to combat obesity in last year’s Public Health White Paper. The Food Standards Agency has approved a ‘traffic-light’ labelling scheme, which will mark out foods as bad (red), medium (amber), or good (green).

The previously dull world of food labelling has become an increasingly contentious area. But why has there been this sudden rush to come up with new ways to label what we eat?

Obesity has become a politically live issue in recent years. Reports highlighting the rising levels of obesity in the world’s richest nations have generated exaggerated claims that we could soon see life expectancy begin to fall, as levels of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer skyrocket. Much of the blame for obesity has been pinned on the food industry. Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Super Size Me captured this changing mood, with its portrayal of a heartless fast-food giant cynically peddling fat-saturated food to an unsuspecting American public.

The idea of food carrying a red label ‘health warning’ suggests that there is something intrinsically dangerous about certain types of food. The food industry apparently stands guilty of manufacturing products that ruin people’s health and destroy lives.

The traffic light scheme effectively treats consumers like children who need to be told what’s good for them, and denies their ability to make their own decisions about what to eat. But nobody needs to be told that a diet solely composed of sweets and chocolate isn’t a good idea.

Consumer groups have denounced food manufacturers’ labelling initiatives as attempts to undermine the traffic-light scheme, in order to protect their profits. But does the outcome of the food labelling war really matter all that much? The government’s favoured traffic-light scheme will at best do little more than remind us of what we already know – certain foods will make us fat when eaten in excess and exercise is an important component of a healthy lifestyle. If labels threatening impotence, lung cancer and a slow, painful death can’t put people off smoking, then what hope is there that a much smaller message hidden away on the back of a chocolate wrapper will change the nation’s habits?

The move to put health warnings on chocolate bars is seen as a bit of a joke. One newsagent, 45-year-old Michael Norton, said: ‘I don’t think that it’s going to make any difference. Everyone knows that chocolate’s full of sugar but people buy it because they like it.’ A second newsagent, Dorothy Maynard, 51, was similarly unconvinced. ‘That’s stupid, I can’t believe it! I don’t see people taking any notice of warnings on cigarette packs so I can’t see them taking any notice of chocolate wrappers.’ Meanwhile, retired council worker David Gibbon, 63, argued: ‘If you eat a lot of chocolate and don’t do any exercise, you’re going to get fat – it’s not difficult. I think that everyone knows this already. I can’t see how changing the wrapper will stop people eating so much.’

But despite the general scepticism about the new labelling initiatives, some believe that obesity is a growing problem that society needs to address. One shop customer noted: ‘It’s important that people are encouraged to think more about their diet. I think that people are getting fatter nowadays, so I think that it’s a good thing.’

We won’t reduce obesity by trying to pin the blame on foods that are fine as part of a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps it’s time that we called a truce in the food labelling war. Food labels, after all, belong on the back of a packet – not in the headlines.

Chris Pile worked as an intern at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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