Future trends

The application of the Nutrition Labelling Directive and its usefulness to consumers has remained under constant review since it entered into force. The anticipated arrival of the formal deadline of October 1998 for the European Commission to provide its report and any proposals for amendment provided an additional focus, as did the Commission's 1997 Green Paper on The General Principles of Food Law in the European Union. The review of the Directive is at the time of writing more than three years overdue and it is high time to consider proposals for change.

In May 2001 the European Commission published a discussion paper on Nutrition Claims and Functional Claims (SANC0/1341/2001). Whilst this was not a review of the nutrition labelling Directive as such, clearly any such discussion cannot ignore the issue of general nutrition labelling and it would seem sensible to consider the entire package. The FSA response to the discussion paper, following extensive consultation with stakeholders, was that the scope of any proposal should embrace all nutrition and health claims, but also that harmonised rules on nutrient claims would help to improve the quality of information available to help consumers choose a healthy diet. It also urged the Commission to initiate the Community-wide debate on the mandatory use of 'full' nutrition labelling (Group 2) as the Agency view is that consumers will not be able to make fully informed choices between the foods available to them until all foods carry it.

In the light of experience and research into consumer use and understanding of nutrition information, the UK response to the need for change can be summed up in a single word: simplification. Most pre-packed food and drink products sold in the UK already carry at least Group 1 information, and many provide Group 2. Nutrition labelling could, if appropriate supporting education programmes were put in place, help consumers to construct a healthy balanced diet from the wide variety of products available to them.

A concept enshrined in the Directive is that nutrition information should be simple and easily understood. Highlighting specific information believed to be of most use to consumers, as recommended by the IGD, and removing any unnecessary clutter would therefore appear to be a step in the right direction.

The debate on whether nutrition labelling should be on a voluntary or mandatory basis has been going on since before the Directive was adopted. Many consumer groups call for nutrition information to be mandatory on all pre-packed foods and drinks. However, it should be remembered that no information comes without a price or a trade-off. Consider the amount of compulsory labelling on any food product: the name of the food; the supplier; a full list of ingredients; a use-by or 'best before' date; storage instructions; cooking or usage instructions to name but a few. Information overload can be off-putting. Possibly more focus should be placed on the general change in eating patterns and the tendency to consume more of our food outside the home, in restaurants and other catering establishments? At present the Directive concerns nutrition labelling of 'foodstuffs to be delivered as such to the ultimate consumer'. It also applies to foodstuffs supplied to restaurants, hospitals, canteens and other similar mass caterers, but how often do we see nutrition declarations on a menu or on any food sold loose over the counter?

In any future trends, perhaps there is a need to reconsider the primary purpose of nutrition information and whether or not current practice is actually achieving it. Consumer information and consumer education are not necessarily the same thing. The primary purpose of the food label is to inform the consumer, not to educate, but the information, as indicated in section 6.4, is of little or no use without some pre-existing knowledge. Responsibility for providing this background knowledge has always been shared between Government, consumer and health organisations, the media and the trade, but the goal appears not to have been reached. It would appear that the lead needs to come from Government, in the UK specifically from the Food Standards Agency, that has responsibility for food labelling and consumer information, and that, unlike its predecessors, seems to be gaining the trust of consumers. If the provision of nutrition information is to assist consumers to choose a more healthy, balanced diet, they must first know what that diet should consist of, then how to use nutrition information to help achieve it. Consistency and simplicity in the messages would be a good start, followed by consistency and simplicity on the label. The growing use of electronic information, including in store, offers opportunities not previously dreamt of. If such a medium can provide each individual consumer with every iota of information he or she wishes to know about any product, why try to cram more and more on the label? Perhaps future policy should gravitate towards providing only the more essential information on the label, and giving interested consumers quick and easy access to any other nutrition information they may wish to know via another medium. The debate on diet and health will continue indefinitely. Arguments over the provision of nutrition information will probably do likewise.

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