Draconian black-and-white cigarette-pack style warnings on fatty, salty and sweet foods are among options being studied by the Government to help tackle the obesity crisis.
Chile adopted this tough “skull-and-crossbones” approach four years ago when a third of adults and 9.3 per cent of under-fives were classified as clinically obese.
A stark front-of-pack logo resembling an official stamp stating High In Sugar, Sodium, Saturated Fats or Calories and signed Ministry of Health appears on unhealthy foods.
The Department for Health and the Food Standards Agency flagged up this scheme last week in a consultation document. The aim is to assess whether the UK's traffic-light labels on front of packs can be improved and in particular to help reduce health inequalities between different socioeconomic groups.
Early analysis of the Chilean scheme found 40 per cent of shoppers were using the labels and there had been a significant drop in sale of sugary drinks, juices and breakfast cereals.
Unlike the UK’s voluntary scheme, the Chilean one is mandatory, although foods that contain naturally high levels of sugar, sodium or saturated fat, such as nuts, avocado and bananas, are excluded from the scheme.
The Chilean government even tested a version of the UK's traffic-light labels but, according to the consultation paper, found the black-and-white warnings “communicated prohibition to consumers and was the most successful tool to alter purchasing behaviour in favour of a healthier choice.”
A French 'Nutri-Score' law introduced in 2017 and already taken up by Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands, is also highlighted. This scores each food according to nutritional content and awards each product a colour code from 'A' on a dark-green background to 'E' on red to rate overall healthiness.
A survey found the labels have encouraged the under 30s and those from the poorest households to buy healthier food.
The food industry, which supports the current traffic-light scheme, is now concerned that facing pressure from the impact of coronavirus and with label changes required by Brexit, it may have to redesign packaging to comply with any new food labelling rules – although the consensus is the hard-hitting approach from Chile would not work.
Kate Halliwell, head of nutrition at the Food and Drink Federation, said: “The Chilean system is based on communicating prohibition, a skull-and-crossbones approach, and I don’t think a ‘stop’ sign on food helps people.
“A label should also recognise the positive aspects of food like our traffic lights and nutrition score, which scores good food such as fibre and protein not just the bad."
Vanessa Richardson, food policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium said: “We like traffic lights, it helps make healthy food choices and everyone is familiar with it.
“It would be a massive change to go to a Chilean-type system where you have a label strongly putting people off certain foods.”
Andrew Kuyk, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, which represents many cheese and bacon producers, is calling for labelling exemptions for foods naturally high in fat or other nutrients.
He said: “It is one thing to identify hidden sugars or fats in products, but most shoppers know butter and cheese is naturally high in fat. The French, for example, have exempted cheese from nutritional labelling because they recognise the absurdity of labelling something that will always score red.”
Consumers, manufacturers and others have 12 weeks to submit their views.