A public watchdog backed down yesterday in its long-running battle to force Britain's £72bn food industry to adopt colour-coded warning labels, to the disappointment of campaigners who believe they would turn people off junk food.
The decision by the Food Standards Agency's board meeting in Cardiff was the first time the agency had dropped its insistence manufacturers use 'traffic light' colours as part of efforts to reduce obesity, heart disease and other diet-related illnesses. Instead, the FSA decided they could display two of the following three methods to indicate the healthiness of food: the colours red, amber and green; the words 'high', 'medium' or 'low'; or percentages of nutrients such as salt and fat.
For the FSA, the decision – which goes to the Health Secretary Andy Burnham for approval – represented an interim stage in an eventual transition to a unified labelling system. For manufacturers, it represented a victory in a vigorous behind-the-scenes campaign to avoid the placing of warning colours on junk food, which they feared would lower sales.
Campaigners said it would delay attempts to improve a poor national diet which has left one in four Britons obese and prematurely kills 70,000 a year at a cost to the health service of billions of pounds.
"We think this compromise is really going to let consumers down. People want to have a single labelling scheme," said Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at the consumer group Which?, which backs traffic lights along with the British Medical Association.
The decision was the latest twist in a six-year battle to agree a single labelling system for processed food, which has pitched public policy and science against PR and lobbying.