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11 July 2006 : Column 1370

My hon. Friend mentioned significant data relating to the new Sainsbury’s labelling, and gave examples. I would add that it is helping people to make informed choices between brands of soup, for instance. That does mean that sales of some products are falling, but product sales of healthier choices are going up. It is interesting that just providing information causes behaviour change. We get a lot of information about our diet and various foods every day, but it is not always clear how much that drives people to make changes in their lives.

We have agreed with all parties to the debate on the need to commission independent research to evaluate some of the systems that are being promoted and used, to discover which ones change behaviour the most. I hope that we can do that in a spirit of co-operation and that all sides will be prepared to accept the results of that independent research if it proves its worth.

The evidence is clear that consumers are overwhelmingly in favour of front of pack signpost labelling and they clearly prefer the colour-coded labels, which was borne out by the Which? report published this week. The issue is not good foods or bad foods, but people making informed choices. I am not saying that people should never eat chocolate or cakes—not least because that would make me a bit of a hypocrite—but it is a question of balance. The red, amber and green labels are not about stopping people eating certain foods, but about helping them to achieve that balance. The colours indicate high, medium and low levels of nutrients, not good or bad foods. That is not the language that we are using.

In every test, formats that did not have a colour element performed significantly worse than those that did. Consumers also wanted some numerical information, but they were less receptive to percentages. Some people find percentages difficult. Some people have English as a second language, and there are various other barriers to understanding information, one of which is time. What information are we evaluating when we stand in front of the freezer cabinet and choose what to put in our trolley or basket for that week? Nine out of 10 consumers said that they found a colour-coded approach very or fairly easy to use and that they could understand it quickly or at a glance. As I have said, consumers also told us that they particularly wanted to see signposts on foods whose nutritional quality is hard to judge, such as ready meals, sandwiches, pizzas, burgers and breakfast cereals.

Evidence is continuing to emerge as new labelling appears on our shelves and consumers get to use it in their shopping experience. That evidence has informed the agency’s work. The FSA carried out many tests and evaluated different models before it reached the recommended approach, which the Government have endorsed. The core principles that the FSA has applied are pragmatic and progressive. They will provide the consumer with consistency and give business the opportunity to tailor their labelling to fit their customers’ needs. Sainsbury’s has gone for the wheel of health and others have chosen an oblong label on the front of packets.

As I have said, the approach is not about demonising foods, but helping busy people to assess quickly the nutritional quality of complex foods so that they can
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make their choices easily. On GDAs, our approach is flexible enough to allow manufacturers and retailers to provide additional information such as calorie content or GDAs if they wish. However, GDAs are not simple to use and the manufacturers will have to produce better arguments if they wish to pursue them instead of colour coding.

I began work on this matter a year ago, and I welcome the progress that has been made. I hope that the Select Committee involvement of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Southend, West has helped to move things along, but I am delighted that more than one third of the retail sector is committed to schemes that meet the FSA model. Sainsbury and Waitrose are so committed, and Asda and the Co-op will be soon.

Jim Dowd: Has my hon. Friend noticed that, with one or two significant exceptions, the retailers are most receptive towards the scheme? The food producers are trying to hide behind the retailers, who are closest to the customers.

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Caroline Flint: That is absolutely true. The retailers have been helping us a lot, in other areas of public health, with their understanding of consumer behaviour. Moreover, it is interesting to see how some of the brand products have ended up competing against retailers’ products. Finding out what impact that has, in terms of the products that are put in trolleys and taken out of the supermarket, would make an interesting piece of research.

We need to encourage more retailers to take up the FSA model. We have committed ourselves to the independent research that I mentioned earlier, which I think will keep us engaged with the industry. In addition, we know that Europe is looking closely at what is happening in the UK. The EU has responsibility for legislation on food labelling across Europe, and I know that some of the companies mentioned by my hon. Friend are already making their case there. They want to find out what works, because that is the most important factor in this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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