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How do the food labelling recommendations measure up? Rosemary Stanton’s analysis

As previously flagged at Croakey, the much-anticipated Blewett Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy has made 61 recomendations.

Are they a win for public health? Thanks to nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton for the following analysis, which suggests that a large part of the answer to that question lies with whether we have a strong or timid Government.

Dr Rosemary Stanton writes:

The long-awaited review of food labelling, aptly titled Labelling Logic, has been released. Its comprehensive coverage of the topic is comforting and no one would argue with the dedication on its cover page, which reads “in remembrance of Dr Trevor Beard OBE, whose passionate contribution to this Review and food reform more generally, is acknowledged and appreciated”.

Trevor’s passion was to live long enough to see Traffic Light Labelling introduced. Sadly, he passed away (aged 90), but he would have been pleased that the red, amber and green dot system for saturated fat, salt and sugar made it into the Review’s recommendations.

He would also have been disappointed that it is recommended as a voluntary system – at least initially.

Public health and consumer reports all recommends traffic lights because they have been shown to help people at all levels of education make easier and better food choices. Not unexpectedly, the food industry doesn’t like traffic lights, ostensibly because they put foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories, but undoubtedly because they reduce sales of the most profitable items, padded with cheap sugar and fat.

Will companies who make quality products voluntarily use green dots and that could push others to follow? Possibly, but don’t hold your breath waiting to see any red dots on food labels.

The voluntary bit is supposed to give the food industry time to adjust. It may also prevent a repetition of the opposition that occurred in Europe where the food industry spent one billion Euros campaigning against mandatory traffic light labelling.

At least the Review gave no support for the industry’s preferred %DI scheme with its row of confusing ‘thumbnails’ on food packaging.However, the industry lost no time in starting its opposition, claiming traffic light labelling would increase costs to the public.

Within hours of the release recommending voluntary traffic light labelling, the Australian Food and Grocery Council had no qualms about increasing costs to shoppers when it announced the launch of a public education campaign about daily intake labelling.

The %DI scheme is favoured by the food industry because it’s unlikely to affect sales. By contrast, studies in the UK have shown that red dots next to sugar, fat or salt on the front of a food package can turn some people off purchasing the product. That’s good news for public health but bad news for those who sell us these junk foods.

Voluntary traffic light labelling is a step in the right direction, but it’s also a vote for procrastination.

Extending labelling requirements to fast foods and vending machines is good news. New South Wales has already introduced compulsory nutrition information to be displayed at point of purchase for fast food chains. Victoria is not far behind, but making it mandatory throughout the country is welcome.

Studies in the US show that parents do make changes to the fast foods they buy for their children when they can compare the calories in different offerings. Australia has the disadvantage of using kilojoules rather than calories, but with 17,000 fast food outlets in Australia serving 1.64 billion meals a year (2007 figures), even a little information may help curb consumption.

It’s also a welcome move to put the kilojoule content on labels of alcoholic beverages, with full nutritional labelling for mixed drinks. There’s always been an understandable reluctance to put nutrition labels on alcohol because zeros next to fat and salt may lead some people to assume alcohol is healthy.

The Review recommends only including kilojoules and this seems to be accepted by at least some sections of the alcohol industry. Hopefully, knowing how many kilojoules they are swallowing may help some people curb consumption for the sake of their waistlines.

There’s also a sensible recommendation on serving sizes. Food companies arbitrarily decide serving sizes, often manipulating them to suit their own ends.

Currently, the serving size given to margarines differs, with higher quantities on those designed to reduce cholesterol absorption. Breakfast cereal serve sizes are tiny, cordial is huge (one part cordial to four parts water anyone?) and some serve sizes bear little relationship to the product (for example, a 150g container with a serve size of 125g or an individual dessert pack that is supposed to serve 2). Serve sizes are no longer required. That should please food companies who complain about too much information. Removing a whole column of figures also makes it easier to compare products per 100g.

It’s also pleasing to see recommendations that industrially produced trans fats should be labelled. That’s enough to have manufacturers abandoning these truly nasty fats.

Limiting health claims to products that have some nutritional virtues is also a leap in the right direction.

Overall, the Review is thorough and considers most issues, but it is still a work in progress.

A strong government would implement its recommendations, strengthening some to address Australia’s major diet-related health problems.

But a timid government could use the review to further delay making some necessary changes.

Let’s hope it really is a year of action.

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