Social Responsibility of Nanny State?
Healthy food labels and warnings are a topic that is constantly in the news. But does the industry have a responsibility to influence consumer choices?
Obesity is at record levels, particularly among the UK’s children, and there are widespread calls to “do something” to counter the epidemic. Sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets and poor decision-making in food purchasing decisions are all contributory factors. But perhaps the biggest question of all is whether food manufacturers have the responsibility, or even the right, to influence the purchasing decisions we make.
A key component in this debate surrounds the custom labels that are becoming an increasingly common sight. We are accustomed to seeing them on cigarette packages, with the written warnings now accompanied by increasingly disturbing images depicting the worst-case consequences of smoking. Should similar warnings appear on bottles of beer, packets of crisps, even sugary breakfast cereals? Or do consumers have a right to make their own choices without being berated by messages on the packaging telling them what a bad decision they are making?
The traffic light system
Lurid images aside, one simple, and apparently effective, measure that was introduced in 2013 was the “traffic light” image that is becoming a steadily more common sight on the front of food packages. It appears as a circle divided into five equal sectors, each of which relates to a potentially unhealthy parameter such as sugar, salt, fat and so on. As well as giving the quantity per serving, each sector is shown in green, red or amber to provide an instant indication of whether it is good, bad or indifferent from a health perspective.
The problem, at least according to some campaign groups, is that this type of labelling is purely voluntary. Ultimately, this means food companies will be far more likely to include it if it is a good news story. It is a little like the health food shops and cafes that are happy to provide calorific value, fat content and so on for their wares – information that is far less likely to be publicised at a burger bar or kebab shop.
Having said that, however, there are changes afoot. Big name manufacturers such as Kellogg’s have recognised that being seen to do nothing could be more damaging for their brands than sharing information that shows their products to contain unhealthy quantities of salt and sugar. They will include the traffic lights on all their products from January 2019.
Drinks sector following suit
This type of self-regulation is being seen across other industries, too. There are similar voluntary systems when it comes to alcohol labels, and over the course of 2018, there has been a steady increase in the number of drinks manufacturers who provide information regarding safe consumption levels.
None the wiser, but better informed
This does not answer our initial question of whether these companies have an obligation to provide these kinds of warnings, or whether consumers should be free to make their own decisions.
Surely the answer, however, is that both are correct. Of course we should all be allowed to make our own choices. But when those choices influence our health and that of our children, it is vital that we make them from an informed standpoint. And that is where the food and drink companies need to step up to the plate.