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tfX complaint to the ASA about the Co-op - success!

Photo of Coop bag: Our packaging tells you the whole truth.

Following our complaint about the Co-op to the ASA (28 May 2004), the Co-op is to begin labelling trans fat quantities in its nutrition panels. The ASA ruled in favour of the Co-op, judging that it has been telling the "whole truth" on its packaging despite not including information on trans fats.

However we secured our objective: that the Co-op should begin labelling trans fats. This was the direct result of our complaint, which brought the issue to the attention of senior Co-op management. Once we had the chance to put to them the case for the labelling of trans fat quantities, they agreed with us.

The Co-op will now begin to routinely label trans fats quantities in its nutrition panels. We expect this process to take place during 2005. It cannot take place immediately due to the need to analyse trans fat quantities in products, and to use up existing stocks of packaging materials.

This is in line with the Co-op's positive initiatives on labelling generally - it has been willing to push at (and at times beyond) the boundaries of legislation and regulation on nutrition labelling, in order to provide consumers with much-needed information about what their food and drink contains.

By labelling trans fat quantities in nutrition panels, the Co-op will maintain its position as the UK's standard setter in responsible labelling, and help its customers to make well-informed choices to eat healthier foods.

Why the ASA ruled in favour of the Co-op

Early drafts of the ASA staff recommendation to its Council appeared to be supportive of our complaint. The key factor that changed the ASA's mind is the anti-consumer UK food labelling regulations. These state that

Once this was disclosed to the ASA, they decided that it would not be reasonable to expect the Co-op to label trans fats, as this would (unless a claim was made in every case) be illegal. We felt that this conclusion was arguable - all that is needed to constitute a 'claim' on trans fat would be to describe the level as 'low', 'medium' or 'high' - as is already the Co-op's standard practice for total fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar.

However we decided not to pursue our representations on this point to the ASA Council, since the Co-op had already promised us that it would label trans fats. There was therefore little to be gained from pursuing the fight, having already gained our key objective.

It is now our intention to:

  1. assist the Co-op in any way we may be asked to do, in their efforts to label trans fats.
  2. campaign to change the UK food labelling regulations to allow trans fat labelling without the need for a claim to be made
  3. to support moves in the EU which would make trans fat labelling compulsory EU wide, including the UK.

More on those regulations

The relevant UK law is the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 (FLR) (SI 1996 No. 1499) (as amended). These may be seen here. These regulations are intended to implement the EC Nutrition Labelling Directive (90/496/EEC), which may be seen here.

According to the FSA (UK Food Standards Agency) the UK regulations on the labelling of trans fats, including the explicit ban on labelling trans fats in the absence of a claim, are necessary in order to fulfill the requirements of the Directive. On reading the Directive, however, it is far from clear that this is the case. All that can really be said is that the Directive is poorly drafted, inconsistent, ambiguous, and in need of a total re-write. There is certainly no explicit ban on the voluntary labelling of trans fats.

We therefore believe that the UK should, and safely could, issue amending regulations to remove the existing trans fat labelling ban

Significantly, there is little apparent enthusiasm for the current regulations within the FSA. The absurdity of the present law is illustrated by the FSA's own advice to consumers that "It's important to try to eat less of both saturated fat and trans fats"!

On the one hand, the FSA advises people to eat less trans fat. On the other, it tells food companies that they are not allowed to tell their customers how much trans fat their food contains. Doh!

Our original bulletin on the complaint (28 May 2004)

tfX has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about the Co-op's failure to live up to its claimed standards on labelling. These standards are shown on its website, and stated on some plastic bags in Co-op shops. These state

"Our packaging tells you the whole truth"

We were amazed by this claim, because The Co-op does not tell the whole truth as far as trans fats are concerned. In our dialogue with The Co-op on trans fats (see here), it has refused to label the trans fat content of its foods (other than own-brand margarines) and failed to answer numerous questions we have put to them.

For example we have asked, why it says that consumers have a "right to know" about trans fat content in their margarines (which are virtually trans fat-free, for which all due credit), however this 'right' does not extend to other products.

We have also submitted further information in support of our original complaint - see here.

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