I want food labels to be simple and honest about what is inside them. This is not always as easy as it sounds, but today was a victory for consumers as the European Parliament supported my objection to a new nutrition claim on food labels. Manufacturers wanted to be able to state ‘now with x% less’ fat, saturates, sugar or salt, if they reduced these nutrients by 15% or more. But it had the potential to be very misleading, and I’m glad we have blocked it.
A number of nutrition claims are already allowed, including ‘reduced’, ‘light’, ‘low fat’ and ‘very low sodium’, to name a few. For health-conscious consumers it is already hard to know which product is the best for themselves and their family and allowing yet another claim would have confused people more. When faced with the choice between one packet of biscuits with ‘15% less sugar’ and one with ‘reduced sugar’, most people would not know which of those has the least sugar, and might wrongly assume that because the first one is quantified it is the best. In fact, the sugar in the biscuits with the reduced claim has been cut by 30%.
Not only is it a bigger reduction, but that 30% has to be in comparison with a range of similar products. The big problem with the x% less claim is that it compares a product with itself. If you are trying to cut down on your salt intake and you see a bag of crisps with ‘reduced salt’, you know that packet would be the best choice for you. But a bag of crisps with ‘15% less salt’ could actually still have the highest levels of salt on the supermarket shelf. This is simply misleading.
There are plenty of examples where this claim could be used to give pretty unhealthy foods a healthier image. There is a well known brand of chocolate spread which contains so much saturated fat that it could be reduced by 20% and still have more saturated fat than any other chocolate spread on the market.
It is for these reasons that I objected to the European Commission allowing this claim. Working together with colleagues from all political persuasions we managed to fight pressure from food manufacturers and national governments to get backing for our objection, first in the Parliament’s Environment and Health Committee, and then by an absolute majority of all MEPs.
Now we have voted against the claim the Commission will have to rethink their approach. Nutrition claims should be used to allow consumers to make healthier choices, if they want to, not as a marketing ploy to improve the image of an unhealthy product. Yes, we want to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products to make them healthier, but it has to be meaningful, and not misleading.
It can be extremely difficult to fight the power of the food and drink industry in the interest of health and consumers, something I found out when I led for my political grouping of Socialists and Democrats on the Food Information Regulation. But it is our duty to ensure that people have transparent and honest information about what is in the food they buy, and today’s vote was another step towards that.