Are the producers hijacking healthy food labelling?


Mars was widely praised when it announced that it would label some of its food products ‘occasional,’ meaning they should only be eaten once a week

But is this a new health initiative, as Mars and its supporters claim, or just a very clever public relations-driven strategy?

The announcement certainly generated the headlines Mars wanted to see. The company was seen as “brave” and “stepping up to the plate” – even the critics of industrial food producers gave it a grudging welcome.

However there is an alternative explanation.

If a company puts the word “occasional” on a product label, it can go on selling it with the same levels of salt and sugar, and insist it is the responsibility of the consumer to use it less frequently.

Just as Mars have done this with some of their Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s range, so have Premier Foods with their Sharwood’s hoisin sauce; they say it is not designed for consumption “every day” and the high level of sugar is “clearly labelled”.

And Tesco say their food “is clearly labelled with its nutritional content so customers can make informed choices about what to buy.”

This may be the start of a trend. After years of resisting moves for stricter labelling, the food industry may be starting to use the process to its own advantage by arguing that what it puts on its products passes responsibility to the consumer.

There is more of a whiff of the lawyer in this. As I mentioned in my earlier blog

a quick google search will reveal a long list of lawyers offering to help producers comply with the law – you will search in vain for them mentioning the words “healthy food.” And there are plenty of software companies providing the same service.

There is a further problem about the Mars initiative – keeping check on what everyone is eating.

The concept of informed choice and occasional use only makes sense if everyone in a household is sharing the same meal for at least most of the time. How many households eat together for three meals a day seven days a week – flat sharers do so even less frequently. When you drop in to see a friend, do you say you have eaten your quota of occasional use sauces for the week? How do you know if your staff canteen has food with occasional use sauces?

In reality, a household will need to keep detailed records of each meal consumed by each member to make these “informed choices” – maybe someone will invent a computer programme to do the work.

It looks to me as if the food producers want to win a few decent headlines and pass the buck to the consumer, while ensuring that their their sales or profit margins are unaffected.


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