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‘Traffic Light’ Food Labels given the Red Light

Civitas, 23 June 2010

One of Brussels’ largest lobbying campaigns has convinced the EU not to endorse ‘traffic light’ food labelling, despite studies showing that it is the “best way for consumers to make informed choices about the food they purchase”, writes Natalie Hamill.

Last week the European Parliament rejected the proposal to require ‘traffic light’ labelling on food (unhealthy foods would be marked in red, moderate foods in amber and healthy foods in green). MEPs opted instead for a Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) system preferred by the food industries.

The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries (CIAA) endorsed the use of GDA tables because, they argued, ‘traffic light’ labelling unfairly stigmatised some foods such as cheese, which has a high fat content but is also a good source of calcium. In contrast, health groups have consistently argued that the GDA system is frequently misunderstood and altogether irrelevant for children. They have long campaigned for simple, colour-coordinated, health-relevant labelling to combat obesity, diabetes and other common health complaints that could be improved or avoided with a better diet. Their claims are backed up by independent studies by the UK’s Food Standards Agency, and an Australian research team, which indicated the advantages of the ‘traffic light’ coding of food packaging,  including that consumers  are 5 times more likely to identify healthy food. However, Corporate Europe Observatory reported, health groups’ arguments were drowned out by the CIAA and their well-funded campaign. The Independent newspaper identified that consumer and organisations’ simply could not match the time and money poured into opposing campaigns by the likes of Coca Cola, Nestle and Kellogg’s.

The EU has become an epicentre for lobby groups. Many important decisions affecting businesses are made by the EU’s institutions (rather than national executives) and as a consequence, lobbying groups have swarmed to Brussels. CIAA’s anti-‘traffic light’ labelling lobbying campaign, which at €1 billion was one of the most expensive ever to be set on the EU stage, serves as a reminder of the fearsome power that unelected business representatives can exert over democratic processes.

Transparency is a major issue. The Transparency Initiative was launched in 2005 to try and counter growing public scepticism on the issue of lobbying, and Siim Kallas, then Administrative Affairs and Anti-Fraud Commissioner, outlined its three goals as:
•    Increasing the financial accountability of EU funding;
•    Strengthening the personal integrity and independence of the EU institutions;
•    Imposing stricter controls on lobbying.

This led to the launch of the Lobby Register in 2008. However in leaving lobbyists to voluntarily sign up to the register (despite the EP recommendation that it should be mandatory, like the equivalent Washington list) the Commission undermined the Register’s potential from the start. As many as 40% of the largest EU lobby groups have not signed the EU Register and, of those that have,  a large number give unreasonable estimates as to the amount of money they spend on lobbying. The CIAA has not signed up.

The UK – which already uses voluntary ‘traffic light’ coding – is now left in an uncertain position after MEPs decided that member states will no longer be able to decide their own regulations on the matter. The vote indicated that member states will be banned from using labelling that goes beyond the agreed EU standard.

No one would dispute that allowing individuals to form groups to ‘have their voices heard’ is an important part of democracy – however when it leads to money and size buying an unfair influence over democratically elected decision-makers, the process has to be re-examined. The Lisbon Treaty’s Citizens’ Initiative (which will allow citizens to petition for proposals to be considered by the Commission) is intended to hand power back to ‘Joe Public’, however as MEP Nessa Childers once said, “Brussels is a lobbying free for all” and if the practice remains unchecked the public will continue to lose out to the interests of big corporations.

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