High salt diets have recently been linked to cases of stomach cancer by the World Cancer Research Fund. Exova's Jamie Weall examines what can be done through the current food information regulatory system.
There have been calls from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recently for the amount of salt in food products to be clearly identified on food labels, and in particular for this to be part of 'standardised colour-coded traffic light labelling'. They are linking high-salt diets directly to stomach cancer.
The WCRF would like to see traffic light labelling on the front of food and drink packaging to give clear guidance on the levels of salt, as well as sugar, fat and saturated fat, and are quoted as saying, 'Standardised labelling among retailers and manufacturers – rather than the different voluntary systems currently in place – would help consumers make better informed and healthy choices'.
But with the new Food Information Regulations (Regulation 1169/2011) coming into force, what are the realities for standardised traffic light labelling?
These new regulations are exactly that: regulations that are directly applicable to all EU member states. One of the benefits of having regulations is so that there's consistency, and different countries don't have different laws, which in effect are barriers to trade. Consequently, the Food Information Regulations have been designed to prevent member states from having different mandatory front-of-pack nutrition schemes.
The regulations do not dictate that front-of-pack nutrition is even mandatory. It's only voluntary. More importantly, in relation to the specific issue raised by the WCRF, if the food business operator chooses to indicate this form of front-of-pack nutrition, it's not in the form of traffic light labelling – it's GDA (guideline daily amounts).
Even though this form of presentation doesn't colour code the nutrients, it does still include the declaration of the amount of salt that would be something I think the WCRF would agree would be beneficial.
In addition to the above voluntary declaration of guideline daily amounts, the Food Information Regulations do have the facility to allow for 'additional forms of expression and presentation' (Article 35). This part of the regulation allows for additional nutrition to be presented using graphical forms or symbols, in addition to words or numbers that in theory could mean traffic light colours.
There are many requirements that have to be met in order for this to be satisfied:
- They are based on sound and scientifically valid consumer research and don't mislead the consumer.
- Their development is the result of consultation with a wide range of stakeholder groups.
- They aim to facilitate consumer understanding of the contribution or importance of the food to the energy and nutrient content of a diet.
- They are supported by scientifically valid evidence of understanding of such forms of expression or presentation by the average consumer.
- In the case of other forms of expression, they're based either on the harmonised reference intakes set out in Annex XIII, or in their absence on generally accepted scientific advice on intakes for energy or nutrients.
- They are objective and non-discriminatory.
- Their application doesn't create obstacles to the free movement of goods.
The regulations go on to further state that 'member states may recommend to food business operators the use of one or more additional forms of expression or presentation of the nutrition declaration that they consider as best fulfilling the requirements laid down in points (a) to (g) of paragraph 1'.
Therefore, the UK could recommend traffic light labelling, but they cannot insist on it because that would go against the point as detailed above and create barriers to trade. This would also be contrary to Article 38 of the Regulations that states, Member states may not adopt nor maintain national measures unless authorised by union law. Those national measures shall not give rise to obstacles to free movement of goods, including discrimination as regards foods from other member states.
Article 35 then further states that member states shall provide the Commission with the details of the additional forms of expression or presentation. Therefore, if the UK authorities want to continue with the current traffic light system, they will need to inform the Commission.
In addition, member states should provide the Commission with the details of such additional forms of expression and presentation and the Commission then has to submit a report to the European Parliament and Council by 13 December 2017 in light of the information gained. The Commission may accompany this report with proposals to modify the regulations. Therefore, there exists the potential for the current GDA scheme to be amended if there's sufficient evidence to support it.
The call for traffic light labelling or any other similar front-of-pack nutrition presentation to become mandatory is one that no doubt will continue.
However, it should be understood that, legally, it's only voluntary and it's the GDA system that the new Food Information Regulations stipulates. Also, importantly, any National Member State scheme such as traffic lighting can be 'recommended' within that member state only, and cannot be something that's mandatory.
Jamie Weall is senior food law advisor at Exova's food and consumer products division. Email him here
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