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France Introduces Colour Coded Food Labelling System

On 31 October 2017, France introduced a voluntary labelling scheme for food products. ‘Nutri-Score’, as it is called, ranks the overall nutritional quality of all food except single-ingredient foodstuffs and water by using a scale of colours ranging from dark green “A” (best nutritional quality) to dark orange “E” (poorest nutritional quality).

So far, six manufacturers and distributors have agreed to implement the labelling system: Auchan, Intermarché, Leclerc, Fleury Michon, Mc Cain and Danone. They committed to include the ‘Nutri-Score’ on the front of all their branded products.

The initiative aims to give consumers comprehensible information so that nutritional values are taken into account as much as price, presentation or taste when food shopping. The ‘Nutri-Score’ as a guideline is expected to contribute to a more balanced diet, thereby preventing obesity and diabetes, major risk factors in the development of heart diseases and even cancer.

Prior to the introduction of ‘Nutri-Score’, France tested different systems including the British ‘traffic light’ one, which – instead of an overall ranking – assigns a colour to each nutritional category. The equally voluntary ‘traffic light’ system introduced in the UK in 2013 monitors the amount of fat, sugar or salt per 100 grams, contained in the food being labelled. Pre-packed products are labelled in one of the three following colours: red for high content, amber for medium content, and green for low content. However, ‘Nutri-Score’ was found to have stronger impacts on consumer behaviour.

Any kind of colour coded food labelling would impact on Hong Kong traders who seek to export their foodstuffs not only to France and the UK, but also to EU Member States that adopt a similar approach. Were this trend to develop any further, e.g., to a more widespread audience or in a mandatory fashion, Hong Kong exporters would be pressured to label their products accordingly.

However, colour-schemed labelling has been a controversial topic among supporters and critics. Critics argue that refining consumer behaviour can only be achieved through education and a reduced exposure to marketing and advertising in the media.

There has been a lot of opposition to the fundamentals of the UK ‘traffic light’ labelling system. As far back as 2011, it was rejected by lawmakers at the EU level.

Even within the UK, it is not uncontested. On the one hand in September 2016, local authorities had urged the UK government to widen the scale of the system and make it universally applicable due to its success with consumers of many different types of foodstuffs. On the other hand, it was also reported that some among the general public were confused by the scheme due to its lack of uniformity and the fact that it was only applied to some products and not all.

Southern European countries have actively raised concerns over such labelling, as they claim that it would stigmatise the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in oil. It was also pointed out that providing too much consumer information could harm the market and confuse consumers.

The new French initiative is being praised by different international organisations. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), colour-coded labelling schemes can reduce caloric intake by 4% and nudge 18% of people to pick a healthier option. The European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and different consumer organisations welcome the initiative, which might help build momentum for a simplified EU-wide scheme.

But several big players in the food and drink industry criticised France’s unilateral decision, stating that it will increase the proliferation of diverging methods and standards. They took issue with the choice of a national recommendation instead of a European approach to front-of-pack food labelling, and expressed concerns regarding barriers to trade within the EU single market.

The Governments of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain have jointly called on the European Commission to indicate what actions it would pursue, asserting that the ‘traffic light’ system infringed the EU’s Food Information to Consumers Regulation (Regulation 1169/2011). This EU Regulation requires mean nutritional values to be written on the back of the pack, a measure which the UK, and now France, deemed insufficient.

A clear indication of the Commission’s intentions will be revealed in just over a year’s time. In accordance with Article 35 of the abovementioned Regulation 1169/2011, the Commission must by 13 December 2017 submit a report to the European Parliament and the Council on the use of additional forms of expression and presentation (such as, for instance, colour coded labelling schemes), on their effect on the internal market, and on whether it is advisable to further harmonise such schemes.

Other Member State governments have been introducing measures aimed at limiting the rates of obesity in their respective countries. Food taxation (a ‘fat tax’) was previously introduced in Denmark, for example, with the hope that consumers would switch to cheaper and healthier alternatives. However, the tax – which was scrapped – ultimately led to inflation, cross-border shopping and large administrative burdens.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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