“Traffic lights” for food? – quo vadis?

22 April 2010

Jarste Akkermann

A front-of-pack nutrition labelling by way of a signposting scheme is already a common practice in some European countries, for example in the United Kingdom. The signposting scheme is supposed to help consumers make informed choices and construct a balanced diet and to allow them to quickly and correctly identify whether a product is a healthier option or one high in fat, salt and sugar. There are different possible formats like a multiple traffic light system, simple traffic lights or a concept with colour coding, often just simply called “traffic lights”.

There are several European countries that have not yet adopted any nutrition labelling by way of a signposting scheme like, for example, Germany. In the light of harmonisation and to ensure a high level of consumer safety and information standard, the European Commission is planning to adopt a front-of-pack nutrition labelling by way of a signposting scheme. This legislative intention has been met with a strong political resistance of several Member States. So far, the Member States have not even agreed on any specific format regarding the “traffic lights”.

The development of front-of-pack nutrition labelling by way of a signposting scheme has suffered another serious blow. The European Commission has expressed further legal concerns regarding a European signposting labelling. Green “traffic lights” were not in line with the Health Claims Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. The European Commission had to concede that the adoption of nutrient profiles as provided for by the Health Claims Regulation would possibly preclude the application of signposting labelling.

One of the German Members of the European Parliament (MEP) had expressed legal concerns regarding a conflict between the adoption of nutrient profiles and signposting labelling in a formal letter to the European Commission. The European Commission admitted in its formal reply possible legal conflicts between the two.

The Health Claims Regulation provides that nutrition claims are not permitted in connection with food where two nutrients exceed the nutrient profile. Pursuant to Article 4 paragraph 2 (b) of the Health Claim Regulation, nutrition claims shall still be allowed where a single nutrient exceeds the nutrient profile provided that a statement about the specific nutrient appears in close proximity to, on the same side and with the same prominence as the claim. That means green “traffic lights” in signposting labelling will be forbidden if the product contains too much fat, salt or sugar at the same time. The only exception to this rule is if nutrition claims refer to a reduction of fat, sugar or salt of at least 30%.

Stakeholders in favour of a European signposting scheme will therefore have to prevent the adoption of nutrient profiles first in order to make a common signposting labelling feasible. On the one hand this poses quite a challenge as the adoption of nutrient profiles is considered the core piece of the Health Claims Regulation. But on the other hand the adoption of nutrient profiles is more difficult than it seems. The European Commission was supposed to have established specific nutrient profiles already by 19 January 2009 but has completely failed to meet this deadline. Apart from fervid debates on a scientific basis for reference quantity/basis for profiles the European Commission has not achieved any results. However, the development of front-of-pack nutrition labelling by way of a signposting scheme has to take another hurdle.