Emma Cabal Santesmases


According to the World Health Organization, the worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Last year the 39% of adults were overweighed and 13% of them were obese. Institutions are also overwhelmed about children´s health: indeed, 41 million children under the age of 5 and over 340 million children and adolescents between the ages of 5-19 were overweight in 2016.[1] Obesity is a noncommunicable disease which can be a major risk factor for another illnesses such as: cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and some body cancers. However, there are good news: it can be prevented.

Since 2004, the WHO has been promoting the “WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health”, a campaign that involves strategies to promote healthy a lifestyle. In the European Union, governments are also taking part of this movement. The UK has been working on one of the main causes of this disease: the increased intake of foods that are high in both fat and calories.[2] A research carried by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that consumers find food labels too complex. Apparently, a color-coded labelling would be a better way to inform about the percentages of nutrients, and therefore, promote a healthy diet. Not only had some organizations such as The British Medical Association and The National Heart Forum supported this idea, but also the media and the public opinion were in favor of a change in the regulation.[3] Due to the pressure, the government decided to introduce in 2013 a voluntary scheme about the “traffic light” labelling. It was used in 2016 by nearly one third of food products sold in the UK. Furthermore, it has been considering making this system compulsory.

Following those steps, the EU has also been questioning their labelling system. Unlike the reaction in the UK, in the EU there has been much more controversy due to the strong opposition of interest groups. How were few lobbies capable of winning this battle against the public health supporters, the public opinion and the advice of the UK government?

To understand this phenomenon it is useful to have a look at Adam William Chalmers´s political theory about pressure groups. The author claims that the way interest groups process information determines their capacity of pressuring decision-makers. In his study he clearly finds evidence enough to prove that lobbies in the EU have equal skills to influence the policy-making process rather than being a type of elite pluralism. However, could the case of “traffic light” labelling be an exception of his theory? To get deeper into this paradox, the strategy followed by the European food lobbies will be compared to Chalmers´s theory of information processing:[4]



Monitoring is essential to get information as soon as possible, earlier than others. Since 2006, when the DG Health and Consumers (SANCO) made a proposal to include mandatory labelling, both health interest groups and food companies have been working on the issue in the same level.[6] Furthermore, they both have also allied with important institutions, politicians or countries. For instance, the color-coded system had the support of the UK health organizations, government and media. In contrast, food lobbies had the support of the Mediterranean countries, since it was claimed that south European products had more salt and oil and their companies would be damaged. But their strategy deferred in two important key points: research and promotional actions. To fight against the traffic light system, the Confederation of the Food and Drinks Industries (CIAA) designed a substitute of the system called Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA). This type of label shows how many calories, sugar, fat and salt a portion contains as a percentage of an adult’s daily needs.[7] Although it has been criticized due to its complexity, the CIAA has invested time, effort and money to change that perception. Apparently, the PR and lobbying Consultancy Fleishman-Hillard was paid up to 671 000 euros to promote the GDA system. It has also worked with the EUFIC think tank to make two studies about the benefits of its use. Moreover, the CIAA itself acknowledged having invested 1 billion euros to promote the substitute. European United Left member Kartika Liotard stated that the pressure made by lobby groups were much bigger than the public interest groups. Indeed, she admitted having only received information and e- mails from the BEUC, Food Watch and the Dutch Consumers Union. On the other hand, during the intense decision-making process of 2010, Liotard had been receiving up to 150 e-mails per day from food interest groups. They actually contacted MEPs through letters, phone calls, sponsored reports, as well as tried to convince them with conferences and lectures, lunch debates, voting recommendations and price draw questionnaires. [8]

At the end of the day, the CIAA finally able to persuade the ENVI committee of the European Parliament to vote against the voluntary use of the color-coded labelling in 2010. As it was explained before, the strategy followed by lobbies was surprisingly successful. It involved a mixture of powerful tactics of monitoring, information transmission, innovative research and strong alliances. However, time has fought back: nowadays the use the “traffic light” labelling in the EU is voluntary, as in the UK.[9]

To sum up, it can be seen that in the short term, lobbies with more financial power such as the CIAA, can have more influence on the decision-making process. Equality is one of the main concerns on this area because it implies a lack of voice of the weaker interest groups. This definitely reflects on this topic, where the health organizations could not afford to inform as massively as the CIAA did. On the other hand, the system has little by little achieved more importance, and it achieved to be considered voluntary as in the UK. What Chalmers does not explain is the long term factor: a policy can vary throughout the time, and therefore the actual lobbing process itself can be longer. In the end, both groups had the capacities but the results varied with the time factor.




Chalmers, Adam William, “Interest, Influence and Information: Comparing the Influence of Interest Groups in the European Union”, August 2011.

Corporate Europe Observatory, “A red light for consumer information”, June 2010. Available in: http://www.dewereldmorgen.be/docs/2010/12/30/ceo-food-labelling.pdf

Corporate Europe Observatory, “MEP Carl Schlyter: Industry lobbying has buried `traffic-light´ labelling”, June 2010. Available in: https://corporateeurope.org/nb/blog/mep-carl-schlyter-industry-lobbying-has-buried-traffic-light-labelling

Department of Health, Food Standards Agency, “Guide to creating a front of pack nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets”, November 2016. Available in: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/566251/FoP_Nutrition_labelling_UK_guidance.pdf

European   Commission,  “Food   information   to    consumers:  legislation”.   Available   in: https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/labelling_nutrition/labelling_legislation_en

FOODDRINKEUROPE,                  “Reference               Intakes”.               Available                in: http://referenceintakes.eu/understanding-label.html

Faculty of Public Health, “Traffic-light Food Labelling”, August 2008. Available in: http://www.fph.org.uk/uploads/ps_food_labelling.pdf

Food Standards Agency, “Front of Pack Nutrition Labelling”, March 2010. Available in: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/multimedia/pdfs/board/fsa100307.pdf

Food Standards Agency, “Understanding NI Consumers Needs Around Food Labelling”, July 2016. Available in: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/consumer-needs-around-food-labelling_0.pdf

HM Government, “Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action”, August 2016. Available in: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/546588/Child hood_obesity_2016 2 acc.pdf

The Independent, “Food Companies Massive Lobby Block”, June 2010. Available in: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/food-companies-in-massive-lobby-to-block-colour-coded-warnings-2000523.html

WHO,       “Obesity       and        overweight”,       October       2017.        Available        in: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/



[1] WHO, “Obesity and overweight”, October 2017

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Faculty of Public Health, “Traffic-light Food Labelling”, August 2008

[4] Chalmers, Adam William, “Interest, Influence and Information: Comparing the Influence of Interest Groups in the European Union”, August 2011.

[5] Corporate Europe Observatory, “A red light for consumer information”, June 2010, pág. 4

[6] Ibidem, pág. 4.

[7] FOODDRINKEUROPE, “Reference Intakes”

[8] Corporate Europe Observatory, “A red light for consumer information”, June 2010, pág 1.

[9] European Commission, “Food information to consumers: legislation”.