Front-of-pack labels gaining support, but not everywhere

6 Apr 2022

More and more frequently, consumers want to know what is in their food. While ingredients lists have long been present on packaged goods, front-of-package labeling has come into vogue in recent years as a shorthand signal to consumers about whether a product is healthy or should be considered ‘junk food.’

In Mexico, Israel and Chile, front-of-pack labeling schemes are already mandatory. However, worldwide, calls for mandated front-of-pack labeling schemes that help consumers identify high fat, salt and sugar products (HFSS) are gaining steam. The World Health Organisation (WHO) formally took the position last fall that these labeling schemes are “an important policy implementation tool to promote healthy diets through facilitating  the consumers’ understanding of the nutritional values of the food and making healthier food choices and drive reformulation by the food industry.”

Front-of-pack labels gaining support, but not everywhere

According to the WHO, the Americas is one of the most advanced regions globally in terms of front-of-pack labeling requirements. Europe is following closely behind, and the European Commission is continuing to pursue mandatory font-of-pack nutrition labelling plans as part of its revision of packaging labeling under the Farm-to-Fork strategy. 

Studies have shown that the voluntary traffic light labelling system (TLS) in the UK and the EU’s Nutri-Score (NS) choice direct consumers to products containing fewer calories as well as less salt, fat or saturated fat. Despite their efficacy, since these systems are currently voluntary, around one in four products do not display these labeling schemes, according to the nonprofit Action on Salt and Sugar.

Not everyone is a proponent

Although the majority of these front-of-pack labeling systems remain voluntary despite institutional support to require them on the packaging, there are opponents.

In the EU, the Italian government remains opposed to the widely-supported NutriScore system. Last fall the Italian antitrust body, the Competition and Market Authority, launched an investigation into five companies using the labeling scheme, saying that consumers may erroneously view the recommendations made on the label as an absolute truth.

In Israel, where front-of-pack labeling identifying HFSS foods has been mandatory since 2020, the United States Foreign Department of Agriculture found “labeling regulation has not had a significant effect on market trends, and sales of labeled products did not decline in this period.”

New supportors the space

Despite obstacles in the path of adoption, several regions are showing a growing interest in these labeling schemes. In the Caribbean, the regional public health sector is advocating to begin using the ‘stop sign’ system that Chile introduced in 2016. This system indicates if a product is high in fat, sugar or sodium and is based on thresholds set by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), which is informed by the World Health Organization.

In the UK, there is growing support from public health organisations and nonprofits to make front-of-pack labeling compulsory. India too is seeing growing support for such a system with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recently announcing that it would begin instituting new requirements for food packaging labels based on a health star rating system.

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