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Industry winning the fight against better food labelling

Kathy Chapman writes: Most people doing their grocery shopping are probably blissfully unaware of the industry lobbying and backroom politics that determines what information appears on food labels.

So let’s start with some background. For almost two years, a Commonwealth government-led initiative involving public health and consumer groups, industry organisations as well as state government health authorities has been working to develop an interpretive front-of-pack food labelling scheme.

The proposed system echoes the “star ratings” already in use for choosing energy- or water-efficient refrigerators and washing machines, as well as hotels and restaurants. Put simply, the more stars, the healthier the food.

But since Australia’s food and health ministers confirmed their commitment to the health star rating system on December 13, 2013, there’s been a steady trickle of food industry media aimed at undermining the scheme. And it appears to be working.

What consumers want

The government-led process has been highly consultative and consumer research has and continues to inform the final design.

The health star rating was based on specially-commissioned consumer research that showed people understood the concept of a star rating for food, but still wanted information about the level of saturated fat, sugars, kilojoules, and sodium in different products.

The research also highlighted mistrust of food industry-led initiatives. Specifically, participants recognised that the company-determined serve sizes, which are the basis of the industry’s existing daily intake guide labelling initiative, are often a fraction of the portions people actually consume and make it difficult to compare different products.

They want front-of-pack nutrition information presented per 100 grams or 100 millilitres to allow for easy, more reliable comparison.

What the industry wants

Despite these findings, the Australian Food and Grocery Council has continued to champion its preferred daily intake guide.

The scheme doesn’t meet the criteria agreed on by federal and state health ministers in 2011 when they endorsed the Blewett review recommendation that a front-of-pack labelling system should provide an easy interpretation of a product’s healthiness and nutrition content.

The system is based on the amount (in percentage terms) that one serving of a product contributes to an “average” adult’s daily intake of 8,700 kilojoules and other nutrients.

But each food manufacturer is allowed to determine what serving size they will base their calculation on. And the same product from two different companies may provide the percentage of daily intake figure based on two different portions.

This variability, coupled with the fact that the serving sizes being used bear little resemblance to the portions that most people eat, has become the main point of contention for health and consumer groups.

The daily intake guide doesn’t allow shoppers to make meaningful product comparisons. Clearly, comparisons both within and across food categories are easier when based on standard portions, such as 100 grams.

Until consistent and meaningful serve sizes are developed in consultation with government, health and consumer groups, and industry, the system cannot be the focus of any government-endorsed front-of-pack labelling system.

An even better option

While many health and consumer groups involved in the development of the scheme are committed to the introduction of the health star rating scheme, it represents a substantial compromise on their preferred traffic light labelling system.

Originally developed by the UK Food Standards Agency in 2006, consumer research conducted there and in Australia had demonstrated that traffic-light systems are highly effective in assisting shoppers identify healthier foods.

Despite the development of the health star rating scheme, Australia continues to lag behind the UK where traffic light labelling is growing in acceptance among food companies, retailers and, of course, consumers (the scheme remains voluntary as mandatory labelling laws are enacted across the European Union).

When the UK government announced the introduction of a consistent front-of-pack food labelling system last year, most major UK supermarkets were either already using traffic light-based schemes or had announced that they would be doing so in the near future.

Increasing support for a traffic light-style scheme by UK food suppliers will generate further evidence about the value and influence of that food labelling system.

Meanwhile, any system introduced into the Australian marketplace must also be widely adopted by the food industry, supported by a public awareness campaign and subjected to extensive evaluation to ensure that it actually guides healthier food choices.

Better labelling on food packaging can help people make healthier food choices and easy comparisons at the supermarket. Despite the food industry’s efforts to undermine it, public health and consumer groups are committed to ensuring the health star rating scheme is widely adopted in Australia.

** Kathy Chapman is Director of Health Strategies at the Cancer Council NSW and PhD student at the University of Sydney. She is a co-investigator on research studies funding by the ARC and ANPHA. 

The author would like to acknowledge the contribution to this article by Wendy Watson, Nutrition Project Officer, and Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager who are both at Cancer Council NSW.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. A reminder to Croakey readers that TC articles are freely available for republishing under a Creative Commons license.

Comments 2

  1. michael r james says:

    The problem with a traffic-lights system is it really is grossly simplistic and is hostage to the usual vested interests–like the Heart Foundation and their absurd Heart Tick. And it is liable to confusion as our woeful scientific understanding of diet v health changes.

    The fact that the UK is adopting traffic lights is not necessarily an endorsement. Sure their lamentable state of diet and health has forced desperate measures, but I am seriously sceptical it will make any difference even if I agreed with the food ratings (I am pretty sure they will give a green to “fat free yoghurt” that is loaded up with sugar.)

    But I agree that the “daily intake” nonsense should simply disappear off labels and off any dietary thinking. Not only are the measures unrealistic as the author points out but the assumption behind the recommended intakes are on shaky scientific grounds.

  2. pat white says:

    sorry folks but if you have to read a label its not food its a PRODUCT,and everything on the packaging is just marketing,if your granny wouldnt recognise it dont eat it

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#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016