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Big Food: on the offensive internationally over labelling

Public health policy consultant Margo Saunders writes:

As a nice follow-on from Lateline’s recent discussion about the food industry’s influence on policy initiatives in Australia, the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine is running a well-argued piece about food labelling by Yale University obesity expert Professor Kelly Brownell and former Assistant Surgeon General Dr Jeffrey Koplan of Emory University, who served as the inaugural Director of the US National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

The article highlights the international nature of the food industry, its influence, and the clashing of heads over what anyone would think are pretty soft public health proposals to provide consumers with food information.

However, as we have seen from Australia’s own review and recommendations about nutritional labelling, which generated mixed reviews from the public health, nutrition, and consumer sectors, it is proving incredibly difficult to get agreement on the provision of information.

Earlier this year, two major food industry groups in the USA, the Grocery Manufacturers of American and the Food Marketing Institute, announced a new voluntary nutrition labeling scheme.  This followed previous industry initiatives under which products such as Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies qualified as ‘smart choices’.

What we heard from Kate Carnell, of the Australian Food & Grocery Council, is a strong echo of the line taken by her US counterparts in terms of arguing that there are no ‘bad’ or inherently unhealthy foods.

Maybe not, but it is interesting to note another article, appearing in the same issue of the NEJM, with findings about particular foods which were found to be associated with an increased risk of weight gain in adults (no surprises here – the list features potato chips and sugar-sweetened beverages).

As Brownell and Koplan point out, even if there are no ‘bad’ foods, there are more and less healthful foods.

That is not to say that consumers will always make decisions based on health information, or that they will even read it. The argument at its most basic level is that, without it, consumers who want to make informed choices are hampered in their ability to do so; clear nutrition information can also motivate manufacturers to reformulate foods and beverages to improve the products’ health profile.

There are unsurprising similarities between the labelling proposals favoured by the food industry in the USA and in Australia: the new voluntary system announced by the US food groups will provide the amount and percentage of the recommended daily value for calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars.

Under Australia’s voluntary system, products which display front-of-pack nutrition labels tend to use the ‘daily intake’ approach (with the additional inclusion of carbs and fibres for some products) – an approach which has been found to be less understandable to consumers than a ‘traffic-light’ system.

The testing that has been conducted on a range of labeling systems leads Brownell and Koplan to conclude that the food industry’s new approach violates several key requirements for an effective approach. In short, it is said to be confusing and does not provide ‘a science-based, easily understood way to show consumers whether foods have a high, medium or low amount of a particular nutrient.’

Brownell and Koplan point out that the high levels of obesity mean that much is at stake when it comes to helping consumers judge, quickly and accurately, the nutritional content of foods.  This is as true in Australia as it is in the USA.

The US approach has been to commission the Institute of Medicine to investigate and report on front-of-pack labeling.  In fact, the expected influence of the Institute’s report, which is due out later this year, is said to be behind the industry’s rush to announce its own approach.

Australia, without an IOM, has been promised a whole-of- Government response by the end of this year to what at least some public health advocates consider to be the fairly soft recommendations of the Independent Panel for the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy.

For both countries, however, the questions are the same: to what extent can the food industry be trusted to act, in the absence of regulation, in the interest of public health, and to what extent will the industry’s agenda continue to carry sway over Government policy?

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