Green light or red herring? - Admiral PR Admiral PR

Green light or red herring?

Over recent years, the government has introduced legislation to promote responsible drinking, reduce smoking and curtail the overt promotion of both cigarettes and alcohol. So it is inevitable that the health issue that costs the NHS billions of pounds a year is now the subject of its focus. Obesity is one of the leading preventable causes of death worldwide, reducing life expectancy by six to seven years and increasing the chances of diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and cancer. Will the new voluntary code on food labeling announced today go some way to giving a clear health message to people? Or will its lack of legal backing make it more of a well-intended gesture than the nationally accepted consistent system some had hoped for?

According to Health Minister, Anna Soubry, “research shows that consumers get confused by the wide variety of labels used.” Food packaging will be marked with red, amber and green lights to represent high, medium and low health risks in each nutritional group. Ms Soubry goes on to say that it will be possible for people to “choose healthier options and control [their] calorie intake.”

In PR terms, it would be unwise for any supermarket to oppose the guidelines, or face being vilified by their competitors and the press. In the face of the inevitable, therefore, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Asda, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, the Co-op and Lidl all declare themselves delighted with the news, even though some of them had previously described the proposed code to be “simplistic” and “unfair”. The National Farmers Union has stood out against the code, stating that the traffic lights are “ineffective” and that they demonise meat and cheese products “unfairly”. Although they will no doubt be accused to self-interest, it is worth noting that the vocabulary used is similar to that of the supermarkets, before the latter’s Road to Damascus conversion. Or should it be called their Waking Up and Smelling the Coffee moment?

Enthusiasm for the government’s code is vociferous from the industry and its commentators but not only farmers, manufacturers and smaller shop keepers are expressing muted concern: Iceland stands alone among the supermarkets in opposing implementation of the code. They are brave as no one wants to be seen to oppose something that is trumpeted as such a good thing. It would look a bit like advocating whale hunting or promoting the sale of cigarettes to children. As the code itself is voluntary, however, things do not need to be so cut and dried. It will be interesting to see how widespread the take up is by next summer or whether this popular code will lack teeth because it is implemented on a voluntary basis and is not actually required by law.

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