The Co-op re-affirms its promise - 24/01/06
Almost a year after its promise to begin labelling the presence of trans fats on its own brand products, the Co-op claims that the first products so labelled will soon be in the shops. Thanks to all those who have written to the Co-op to press them on this issue!
While we regret the length of time it has taken, we welcome the fact that the policy is at last taking effect. However we continue to urge the Co-op to alter its criteria for the labelling of trans fats. At present, the Co-op policy is to label trans fats in the nutrition panel only where trans fats are present at or above 0.5 grams per 100 grams of product. However,
- people will suspect the presence of trans fats in any product containing hydrogenated oil. If trans is present at less than 0.5 percent in such products, people deserve the reassurance of knowing - not just guessing - just how much or how little trans is present.
- the 0.5 gram threshold is too high. As little as one gram of dietary trans fat per day is enough to create a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and people could eat that amount of trans fat in several portions of products containing, say, 0.4 grams of trans per 100 grams.
Accordingly, we call on the Co-op to revise its policy and label the amount of trans fat present wherever:
- hydrogenated oil or fat is present in the product, and / or
- trans is present at 0.1 grams per 100 grams or more.
Action: contact the Co-op. Tell them you look forward to seeing trans fat labelled on their products, but please could they revise their criteria for labelling as set out above.
The Co-op's statement in full
Our policy of labelling trans fatty acids in foods containing hydrogenated fats as an ingredient remains unchanged from that originally brought to your attention by David Croft and clarified by Adrian in May 2005. As you are aware in order to avoid falling foul of the Nutrition Labelling Regulations 1996 we had to devise a way of making a claim about trans fats in order to legally include them in the nutrition panel. This has been achieved by inserting a statement in the ingredients panel of appropriate foods as follows:
"hydrogenated fat (containing trans fatty acids) ... "
We are using a 0.5g per serving lower threshold for labelling in the nutrition panel. This decision was arrived at after much internal discussion and is, as you know, based on the level adopted by the FDA. Products with less than 0.5 g per serving will not make a claim for trans fatty acids and consequently there will be no reference to trans fats in the nutrition panel. In the absence of a recognised labelling scheme in the UK we had to devise our own within the constraints imposed by legislation and looked to the US for guidance on this matter.
Where trans fatty acids are declared in the nutrition panel the following break points for High, Medium and Low descriptors will also be adopted:
Low Medium High <1.0g 1.0g - 3.0g >3.0g
A copy of the packaging for Co-op Cheese Twists carrying the new labelling is enclosed for your information and will be available in-store shortly. In addition to labelling we are also seeking alternatives to hydrogenated fats wherever possible across the whole of the Co-op Brand range.
Co-op to begin trans fat labelling - 9/02/05
The Co-op - the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS) and its affiliated local cooperative societies, are to begin the routine labelling of trans fat quantities in the nutrition panels of their own-brand foods.
This new policy is the result of tfX's complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority of June 2004 (see here for details).
This policy will not apply to all foods - only to those that contain, or might be expected to contain, trans fats. The policy will begin to be rolled out during 2005. It cannot take place immediately as there is a lot of work to do analysing trans fat quantities, then using up existing stocks of packaging materials.
The precise form that the labelling will take has yet to be established, and is the subject of discussion within the Co-op. But in order to comply with UK nutrition labelling regulations, it is likely to be in the nutrition panel, where trans fats are to be listed under 'total fat' alongside 'saturated fat'. We expect that the statement of quantity will be accompanied by an indication as to whether the level found is 'high', 'medium' or 'low'.
In labelling trans fat quantities, the Co-op is setting an important example for other retailers to follow. If the Co-op can do it, so can Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Morrison's ... not to mention the big food processing companies.
Background - what follows below reflects the position as of 2004.
The Co-op makes widespread use of hydrogenated vegetable oils. There are several positive points, however:
- Hydrogenated vegetable oils are absent from some of its products where most other brands include them; for example, its digestive biscuits, both chocolate and plain.
- It does, voluntarily, state the trans fat content of its own-brand margarines in the nutrition label: its sunflower spread has 0.2g of trans fat per 100g, and its vegetable oil spread has trans fat only at a "trace" level; neither contain hydrogenated oils.
However we believe that the Co-op position on trans fats is not good enough. The Co-op should be taking a lead, in the light of its positive thinking on health and honest labelling as expressed below, and the fact that it is owned by its members who are also its customers, in:
- labelling the trans fat content of all its products, not just margarines
- progressively removing trans fats from its entire range of own-brand products
- informing its customers of its actions in regard to trans fats and explaining why it is taking those actions.
Asked about these issues, the Co-op has failed to answer our questions. We are disappointed in their obructionist stance and will press them further.
Products containing trans fats
A large number of Co-op products contain hydrogenated vegetable oils, and thus trans fats. In particular its products often contain hydrogenated palm oil, which is rarely reported by other manufacturers. Since palm oil is already a relatively hard, saturated fat, there is less reason to resort to hydrogenation where it is used.
Specific products containing hydrogenated vegetable oils include:
- Co-op "Criminally Creamy" chocolate honeycomb ice cream
- Co-op "Delight" sloppy pudding mix
- Co-op Sage & Onion stuffing mix
- Co-op Pink Wafer Biscuits
- Co-op cake mixes (various)
- Co-op mincemeat
- Co-op cheesecake.
The CWS website (www.co-op.co.uk) states:
"As a responsible retailer, the Co-op believes that promoting good diet and health is a priority. We appreciate that the issues involved are complex and that it can be difficult to know what is good for you and what is not, views shared by the Food Standards Agency and the Food Commission. As a result, we are committed to providing full, open and honest information so that you can make informed choices about the food and other grocery products you choose when shopping. We call this approach - 'Honest Food - helping you make informed choices' and this is the way we communicate diet and health information which we believe you have a 'Right to Know'. "
However, there is no mention of trans fats and their health impacts anywhere amongst its statements on health.
In similar vein the CWS-affiliated Oxford, Swindon & Gloucester Co-op states in its 2004 Annual Report:
"Nothing matters more to all of us than our health and the health of those closest to us. Your Society works hard to improve the health of its staff, members, customers and the people who live in the communities we serve... The Co-op is recognised for its work championing consumer rights with clear and honest food labelling and a commitment to promoting healthy diets and lifestyles."
CWS statement on Trans Fatty Acids
The CWS provided us with this statement by letter of 19 April 2004. We wish to note:
"With regard about the effect on health of eating hydrogenated vegetable oils, the British Nutrition Foundation state that the average intake of trans fatty acids in the UK are not significantly damaging to health. Like saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids do affect blood cholesterol levels and we should not increase our intakes of these. However BNF state we should try to reduce our intake of saturated fatty acids as they are consumed in far greater quantities than trans fatty acids.
"Studies have failed to show that trans fatty acids are a significant factor contributing to coronary heart disease. The report did not find any evidence that the trans fatty acids found in industrially hardened oils are different to those produced in nature and found in mutton, beef and milk fats, including butter. A Senior Nutrition Scientist at the BNF has stated that Trans fatty acids from different sources are basically the same but the amounts in similar products may differ. With margarines, reduced fat and soft varieties high in polyunsaturated fatty acids contain lower levels of trans fatty acids than hard margarines.
"Finding out whether or not the margarine you eat is high in trans fatty acids is not easy. Labels on British foods do not spell out how much trans fatty acid they contain. The only indication given is the mention of hydrogenated oils.
However, the Co-op believes customers have the right to know this information so we state on our label the content to trans fatty acids on our margarines and fat spreads for your convenience."
Our commentary on the CWS statement
- The CWS places excessive reliance on information provided by the Brtish Nutrition Council. This "NGO" is entirely supported by the food industry, and its views cannot therefore be considered independent or objective. See our page on the BNF here
- No references are given to published documents or other source material on which the CWS / BNF base their opinions.
- The statement that "Studies have failed to show that trans fatty acids are a significant factor contributing to coronary heart disease" is false. The link has been conclusively proven in numerous studies.
- The CWS's claim that there is no "evidence that the trans fatty acids found in industrially hardened oils are different to those produced in nature" is wrong. See here for information on naturally-occuring trans fats.
- The CWS failed to answer several specific questions asked, for example, why they do not extend the nutrition labelling of trans fats from margarines to all their own brand products? do they have a policy to reduce trans fats in their own brand products, or eliminate them altogether?
- On being pressed further on the above points, CWS blandly responded: "Our current policy is not to declare trans fatty acids on our labelling. At present our policy is to reduce fat and salt in our products where ever possible." It also sent a statement which largely duplicated and added nothing of value to the statement already made. This response is not only unhelpful, it is also incorrect as it is CWS policy to declare trans fat on the labelling of its own-brand margarines.