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Latest news - tfX success!

The ASA has come down in favour of the Co-op - but the Co-op is to begin labelling trans fats on its products. This follows directly from our complaint, which succeeded in drawing the attention of senior Co-op management to the trans fat labelling issue. When we put our case to them, they agreed with us. Trans fat quantities will be marked on nutrition panels commencing 2005. More info here.
9 February 2005.

Complaint to ASA about the Co-op

Background material submitted to the ASA in support of our complaint, 6 October 2004.

The original concise complaint about the Cooperative Group's failure to adhere to its espoused standards on "honest labelling" in the mattter of trans fats was made on 28 May 2004 via the Advertising Standards Authority's website (www.asa.org.uk).

In conversation with the ASA, we were advised that it would be possible for us to submit additional information in support of our case, and that this might well be to our benefit. Consequently, on 6 October 2004, the following was submitted within a letter to the ASA.

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

1. Introduction & background

I am writing following my complaint about the Co-operative Group (which I shall from here on refer to as "the Co-op"), specifically the plastic bag given out in its stores and those of its affiliates, with the message:

"Our packaging tells you the whole truth"

I would like to add to that a number of the Co-op's further statements, taken from its website:

"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'. "
"The Co-op has already implemented a 'Right to Know' policy which commits it to give consumers the facts they need to make informed choices about the goods they buy."
"Consumers are being betrayed by manufacturers and retailers. Product labels mislead consumers about the food they're eating. Retailers and manufacturers need a new code of practice with consumer rather than industry interests at heart. ... Sometimes the letter of the law is vague, falling short of the spirit intended by regulators trying to protect consumers. A myriad of guidelines about what should and shouldn't be said on labels has developed to fill this gap. But they are lodged in many places and sometimes are only available to members of relevant trade associations or at a price. These guidelines are often written by industry with its own, rather than consumer, interests at heart."
"Particularly alarming is the lack of progress on nutrition labelling. There has been a series of warnings by food and health experts that our diet is contributing to a growth in obesity and other health problems in the UK, including among children. Food labelling cannot wholly be blamed for diet-related disorders, but the Co-op believes that the absence of clear, concise and consumer-friendly nutrition information by food producers is a contributory factor - and one that can be easily eliminated. We think the time has come to take further action and the public agrees, as independent research carried out by NOP shows. The Co-op has already challenged regulations which we believe have not been drawn up in the consumers' best interests. Now we will defy them again in order to field-test a radical new approach to nutrition labelling, which will hand back to consumers their right to know whether or not the food they buy in the supermarket is good for them and their families."
"Co-op own brand packaging tells you the whole truth! We call this Honest Labelling We believe we provide more information on our product packaging than anyone else and that you have a 'Right to Know' about the products you buy. We go beyond the legal minimum and will challenge legislation on labelling where we believe it misleads. ... If you think we have got it wrong (and sometimes we do), tell us and we will check out your concern. If proven, we will change the packaging at the next opportunity and tell you what we are going to do about it. If we feel that there are further implications that need consideration, we refer it to our unique Consumer Jury, made up of Co-op members - customers just like you - who rule on the concern raised. We agree to abide by the decisions of the Jury."
"Furthermore, a new labelling scheme informing consumers when trans fatty acids are contained in food - those fats which medical research has linked to incidence of heart disease - is now in operation. The Co-op is the first retailer to do this."

Given that the Co-operative Group has submitted a large amount of material to you, following a concise original complaint from me made via your website, I would like to take this opportunity to re-state my case in slightly greater detail.

2. Interpretation of the Co-op's claim(s)

Our first task is to interpret what the claim made by the Co-op actually means. My view is that the claim that was the subject of the original complaint:

Taken together with other statements on the Co-op's website, the customer would be led to believe that the Co-op is standing up for the consumer interest on matters of health, diet and labelling, maintains independent processes to ensure that the consumer interest is upheld, and is indeed actively campaigning for higher standards in the industry as whole. It also appears that the Co-op has a specific scheme to label trans fats in its own products.

3. Complaint summary

The essence of my complaint is that the Co-op's product information on its packaging does not meet this self-imposed standard, with reference to the Co-op's failure to tell its customers "the whole truth" about the nutritional quality of oils and fats in its own-brand food products.

Specifically, the Co-op does not adequately inform its consumers about the trans fat (or trans fatty acid) content of its foods, whereas such information is necessary to inform the health-aware consumer in their choice of products. This is in spite of the Co-op's specific claim in this regard, which I have just sought to verify. An examination of a dozen Co-op branded margarines and products containing hydrogenated vegetable oils (and thus, by presumption, trans fats) indicates that this policy applies only to margarines.

This also appears to be in breach of the Co-op's "Honest Food - helping you make informed choices" and "Right to Know" policies as regards diet and health information, as stated on its website.

4. Incomplete information

The Co-op does not have a consistent policy to label the trans fat content of its products, in spite of apparent claims to the contrary. We believe that, in order to justify its claims, that it should have such a policy, applying to all products that contain, or might reasonably be expected to contain, detectable amounts of trans fat.

This is because trans fats - specifically the synthetic trans fats arising from the hydrogenation of unsaturated oils and fats - are known to be harmful to health. This has been proven in numerous clinical studies, and has been stated by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). See Appendix One below for a representative but by no means exhaustive compendium of authoritative findings on trans fats.

As will be seen, the definitive COMA report was published in 1994, showing that concerns about trans fats are in no way new or outlandish. The deleterious health effects of trans fats are such that Denmark has banned all foods, and all food ingredients, containing more than 2 percent trans fat.

Please also note that the FSA advises the public to lower its consumption of trans fats in the interests of good health. It is hard to follow this advice unless responsible food processors and retailers take it upon themselves to provide their customers with information on the trans fat content of their products.

It might be argued that health-aware consumers should simply avoid any product containing [partially] hydrogenated vegetable oil. However this is inadequate. The mere presence of [partially] hydrogenated vegetable oil on an ingredients list gives no indication as to the quantities of trans fat present. Indeed, fully-hydrogenated oils are saturated fats and cannot therefore contain any trans fat.

In short, there is no substitute for the labelling of trans fats on nutrition labels in order to give consumers "the whole truth" on this issue in order that they can make the kind of informed choice that the Co-op says it believes in.

This fact has been recognised by federal regulators in the USA (the Food and Drug Administration), who will require food companies to label the trans fat content of their products on the nutrition label, effective 1 January 2006.

This importance of labelling trans fats has, in fact, been recognised by the Co-op, in the case of its own brand margarines. These are labelled with the words "free of trans fats", "contains trans fats" or similar, and also contain trans fat quantities on the nutrition label. However this information appears to be present only on its margarines. I have been unable to find similar information on other Co-op branded products even where they contain hydrogenated vegetable oil and may therefore be presumed, in the absence of information to the contrary, to contain trans fat.

5. Misleading information - saturated vs. unsaturated

The Co-op frequently does distinguish between "saturated" and "unsaturated" fats in its labelling, in the "nutrition" information panel. This is done by giving a quantities of "All fat" and "of which saturates". The "unsaturated" component is the difference between the two figures.

This is useful information in that unsaturated fats (both mono-unsaturates and poly-unsaturates) are generally accepted as "healthy", while saturated fats are, when consumed to excess, associated with cardiovascular disease, and so widely considered "unhealthy".

However the Co-op generally does not as a rule (with the exception of margarines) provide similar information on the content of trans fats (trans fatty acids) in its products. This is a significant defect in its policy in that trans fats - specifically the synthetic trans fats that arise during the hydrogenation of unsaturated vegetable oils - have been shown to be more harmful to health than saturated fats.

It is to be noted that these trans fats are, from a chemical point of view, unsaturated. As a result, where labels show the volumes of saturated and unsaturated fat in a product, the trans fat is included under the "unsaturated" heading. Consumers will therefore be led to believe that the trans fat content is "healthy" fat, whereas it is, in truth, more unhealthy even than saturated fat.

In this case, it is easy to see that the Co-op's labelling policy, while perfectly legal under current labelling law, is nonetheless potentially misleading to the consumer. It certainly falls well short of the standard that the Co-op sets itself, to tell "the whole truth" in its packaging.

6. Summary

There is a clear gulf between the Co-op's stated policies and it actual practice as regards the labelling of trans fats. This is a matter of considerable disappointment as it first appeared to us at tfX that the Co-op would be a significant ally within the food industry that would set a fine example regarding trans fat labelling, for the remainder of the industry to follow. However during our dialogue with the Co-op it soon became apparent that this was not so.

Our aim in bringing this complaint is simply to bring about a much-needed convergence between its public policy statements and its practice. Our hope is that it will bring its practice up to the standards it has publicly set itself. However, if it is unable or unwilling to do so, it must surely moderate its claims to match.

Oliver Tickell, tfX.
6 October 2004.

Appendix 1. Harmful health impacts of trans fats

The Institute of Medicine (USA), Letter Report on Dietary Reference Intakes for Trans Fatty Acids, IoM 2002.

"There is a positive linear trend between trans fatty acid intake and total and LDL cholesterol concentration, and therefore increased risk of CHD, thus suggesting a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) of zero ... it is recommended that trans fatty acid consumption be as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet. "
"The combined results of metabolic and epidemiologic studies strongly support an adverse effect of trans fat on risk of CHD. Furthermore, two independent methods of estimation indicate that the adverse effect of trans fat is stronger than that of saturated fat. By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated fat in the U.S. diet with natural unhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,0000 premature deaths annually. These reductions are higher than what could be achieved with realistic reductions in saturated fat intake."

Mary G. Enig, Ph.D., F.A.C.N. Director, Nutritional Sciences Division Enig Associates, Inc.

"Because trans fatty acids disrupt cellular function, they affect many enzymes such as the delta-6 desaturase and consequently interfere with the necessary conversions of both the omega-6 and the omega-3 essential fatty acids to their elongated forms and consequently escalate the adverse effects of essential fatty acid deficiency... "

The UK Food Standards Agency (website)

"The trans fats found in food containing hydrogenated vegetable oil are harmful and have no known nutritional benefits. They raise the type of cholesterol in the blood that increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Some evidence suggests that the effects of these trans fats may be worse than saturated fats. It's important to try to eat less of both saturated fat and trans fats."

World Health Organisation (website)

Compelling evidence indicates that at least three dietary strategies are effective in preventing CVD [cardio-vascular disease], and in helping manage the disease: Substitute nonhydrogenated unsaturated fats (especially polyunsaturated fat) for saturated and trans-fats ...

Trans-Fatty-Acid Content of Common Foods, letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (Volume 329:1969-1970, December 23 1993, Number 26).

"The adverse effects of the trans fatty acids on the ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol is twice that of saturated fatty acids."

Report of the Cardiovascular Review Group of the Committee of Medical Aspects of Food Policy number 46. Department of Health 1994, HMSO. S.2.4.

"Trans fatty acids (mainly from hydrogenated fat in margarines and shortenings and products made from them, eg biscuits, pastries; also from meat and dairy products). A number of recent studies, both experimental and epidemiological, indicate that trans fatty acids, particularly those from margarines and cooking fats, may have undesirable effects not only on plasma LDL and HDL cholesterol, but also on Lp(a) and CHD mortality (see 6.2.5). The average intake of of trans fatty acids, at present, is about 2 per cent of food energy, or about 5g per day. We recommend that, on average, trans fatty acids should provide no more than the current average of about 2% of dietary energy and that consideration should be given to ways of decreasing the amount present in the diet."

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