Will Europe Green-Light New Food Labels?

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Obesity used to be seen as a problem only for Americans, with their love of fast food and aversion to exercise. But over the past two decades, Europe's waistlines have been steadily expanding too. In fact, from 1990 to 2006, obesity levels in Europe tripled, according to statistics from the World Health Organization. Although they've yet to catch up with the 32% obesity rate in the U.S., Europeans have nothing to be complacent about. In Italy, nearly 10% of people are considered obese, and in the U.K., the figure is more than 24%, according to the latest WHO figures, from 2006.

Faced with such alarming statistics, the European Union, in an attempt to battle the bloc's growing bulge, is mulling drastic changes in the way food products are labeled. The most controversial of the proposals so far is a flashy label backed by health and consumer groups that's based on the colors of a traffic light. Already fixtures in many British supermarkets, the labels use red, yellow and green circles to indicate how healthy products are in four categories: fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. If a box of cookies is high in sugar, for instance, it'll get a red light. Food and drink companies oppose this approach and prefer to maintain the status quo — requiring only the calorie content to be displayed on the package front, with nutritional information listed on the back. The European Parliament is expected to vote on the issue in May or June.

Food labels are a big issue in the U.S. at the moment too. Earlier this month, a lobbying group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a report calling for the U.S. government to require food and drink companies to summarize nutritional information with "easy to comprehend" symbols on the package front. First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made reducing childhood obesity one of her key goals, said recently that she'd like to see food companies start using more customer-friendly labels "so parents won't have to spend hours squinting at words that they can't pronounce to figure out whether the foods that they're buying are healthy or not."

Advocates of the traffic-light proposal in Europe insist that prominent, mandatory labeling is the most effective way to inform consumers. They are backed by a growing body of research. A study this year found that just 17% of European shoppers look for nutritional information when they buy food. Another study showed that although 75% of consumers in France say they are interested in nutrition, a full 84% could not explain what a carbohydrate is. And another study, conducted in Australia last year, indicated that people were five times as likely to identify healthy food options when they see color-coded nutrition labels.

Dave McCullough, a spokesman for the European Consumers' Organization (BEUC), says that on average, Europeans have about a half hour each week to do all their food shopping. "The fact is that a lot of people do not have time to make decisions on what they are buying," he says. "A housewife out with her three kids wants to make a quick decision while rushing through the supermarket aisles and does not have time for detailed comparison. When we clearly have an obesity epidemic spreading across Europe and when consumers clearly want to make healthier choices about their diet, we really should give them the tools that work best and which they want."

Linda McAvan, a member of the European Parliament from Britain's Labour Party and a supporter of the color-coded food labels, echoes that sentiment. "There is evidence that consumer pressure generated through the traffic-light scheme can lead to product reformulation by retailers," she says. "One major retailer told me how their least healthy sandwich range was phased out when labeling was introduced, as people stopped buying the high-fat and -salt options."

But the powerful food and drink lobbies and their allies in the European Parliament aren't quite so sure. Renate Sommer, a parliamentarian from Germany's Christian Democratic Union party, favors limiting front-of-package labeling to calorie content and allowing food companies to decide how much nutritional information to list on the back. "It would be wrong to overload consumers. Otherwise you would need a calculator to work out your diet," she says. "The more you label, the less people read. The U.S. has more and more food labeling, but obesity rates keep rising. We should learn from their mistakes."

The CIAA, the European food-and-drink-industry body, also believes the voluntary back-of-package guideline-daily-amount (GDA) labels are good enough. "While there is no silver bullet to tackling obesity, we are already doing a lot," says Mella Frewen, the head of the group. "Issues such as obesity require a complex mix of solutions. We need a more coherent approach covering a multitude of factors, like education, physical activity, portion size and frequency of consumption." Frewen contends the traffic-light proposal is too subjective. "It makes a blanket judgment about foodstuffs and suggests that there are 'good' and 'bad' choices which can be applied to everyone. This is not the case. Consumers have different dietary needs," she says.

Traffic-light opponents may have gotten the upper hand on May 16 when a European Parliament committee recommended backing the simpler front-of-package labels that list only calorie counts. But with a couple of months to go in the debate, health activists say there's a chance the multicolored labels could still get the green light.