Tesco rejects traffic lights in favour of nutritional signposts

Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket, is shunning the Government’s preferred option of ‘traffic light’ food labelling following an initial trial period, amid claims that the system is too simplistic and confusing for the consumer.

It is choosing instead to launch its very own nutritional ‘signposts’ system, which will roll out across hundreds of its own-label packs over the coming months.

The signposts will highlight key information across five distinct categories, covering: salt, fat, saturated fat, sugar and calories. Each product will list nutritional content as a proportion of daily guidelines, allowing customers to figure out how the food item fits into their diet as a whole.

The move to ditch the traffic light system – a design based on colour codes, whereby green means eat plenty, amber means eat in moderation and red, eat sparingly – follows 12 months of extensive research by Tesco.

Tesco had been using the traffic light labelling initiative in an ‘open-ended’ trial since last autumn (DW 10 June 2004). Rocket Design Consultants had developed the on-pack labels.

According to Tesco, individuals were becoming confused – they did not know how to treat the amber light and could not relate the system to daily consumption. Concern also arose because some foods that provide important nutrients, such as dairy, were labelled ‘red’.

Tim Mason, marketing director at Tesco, says, ‘Signposts provide clear and easy to understand information in a way which gives customers the power to choose products that will help them follow a balanced diet. The signposts also help customers who have specific dietary needs to keep a close eye on any area they might be worried about.’

This specification in food labelling – unlike the generic traffic light system – is likely to be well received.

Some 58 per cent of consumers claim it is difficult to work out if foods are healthy from the labels or information on packs, according to Mintel’s latest research, The Food Report. Around seven in ten consumers admit they do not even know which foods are healthy, in part because advice from experts keeps changing.

It seems that gauging consumer confusion to inform packaging designs is vital if the Government is to push ahead with its mission to persuade all retailers and manufacturers to back a single initiative.

Currently, the Food Standards Agency is seeking to impose a national standard on the food industry and is consulting on a range of options, including two variations of the traffic light system and a third option, much closer to Tesco’s choice.

Following research, it was the traffic light scheme that emerged as the consumer’s favourite, while a number-based system, such as the one Tesco has introduced, was one of the least popular with consumers.

What final designs emerge for a uniform label packaging system is as much up in the air as ever before.

Mixed signals

• The traffic light system uses colour-coding to simply demonstrate how healthy food products are; green indicates ‘eat plenty’, amber ‘eat in moderation’ and red warns ‘eat sparingly’.

• The traffic light approach was one of the proposals put forward in the Government’s Public Health White Paper last year.

• Tesco’s decision to launch its own ‘signposts’ scheme may make it harder for the Government’s Food Standards Agency to impose a national standard on the food industry.

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