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The push for better food labelling is creating unhealthy alliances

Industry forces are combining to resist moves for healthier labelling of foods, reports Dr Catriona Bonfiglioli. She writes:

“The pressure is on to curb marketing of high-energy foods and drinks to children and for all foods and drinks to be labelled in ways which help people choose healthier diets – ideally with traffic light colours. The strength of this pressure can be measured by the gathering resistance among food and drink manufacturers and retailers’ organisations.

The most visible resistance in Australia so far appears to be an outbreak of baby-blue labels on the front of packages which regurgitate the information available on the back in the compulsory nutrition information panels (NIPs) in terms of ‘guideline daily amounts’ (GDAs).

It doesn’t take a semiotician to work out that blue is industry’s preferred colour because it is soft and reassuring and quite unlike the scary red lights proclaiming DANGER! STOP! which would be smothering many popular and profitable energy dense products if public health professionals had their way.

Industry may also be tempted by research which shows consumers find GDAs confusing and much harder to read than traffic light labels which are proven to be five times more effective in helping consumers identify healthier choices. While key UK players (notably Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks & Spencer) provide traffic light labels, this may soon undermined by the EU, which has just rejected traffic lights.

Down under, new resistance is appearing in the forging of links between public relations strategists and retail organizations to defend independent shopkeepers’ right to promote high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar food to children.

The latest moves feature in Keith Ng’s blog which reports that New Zealand retail organisations appear to be getting help from public relations experts, including some with track records of advocating on behalf of big tobacco and whalers, to fight moves to restrict displays of confectionary, lollies and soft drinks (Thanks to Fight the Obesity Epidemic for the link to Ng’s blog.

Inadequate labels and marketing of unnecessary foods are high on the hit list of international health experts – recommendations for Australia include: “Ban all marketing of food to children, including television advertisements; … Require “traffic light” food labelling … on all foods, drinks and meals.”

The Association of Community Retailers (ACR) is worried about moves which: “Introduce taxation on sugar-added drinks; [ban] marketing of any unhealthy foods to children and adolescents; … totally ban ‘junk food’ marketing; Include front of packet labelling about obesity and type-2 diabetes.”

This grassroots organization of “independent family-run retail outlets” assures us that they are not funded by tobacco companies. However, Ng spotted that the ACR shares a PO Box with Omeka Public Relations, a PR firm of Glenn Inwood’s.

According to the NZ Herald Online, another of Inwood’s companies, Spin It Wide, puts out media releases on behalf of Imperial Tobacco and Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research. Ng reports that another Spin It Wide client, via Carrick Graham’s Facilitate Communications Ltd, is the New Zealand Association of Convenience Stores whose “Premier Members” include British American Tobacco, Cadbury, The Coca Cola Company, Tip Top, Mars New Zealand, Nestle, Streets, and Imperial Tobacco.

ACR founding member Richard Green, who runs a tobacconist business in Palmerston North, is quoted thus: “I would love to get funding from the tobacco industry.”

Health-promotion is now directly at odds with the needs of industry to make profits by selling unnecessary foods and drinks to people at least half of whom have a weight problem.

If big tobacco tactics inform the food and drink industry’s resistance to health-promoting regulations, we will be waiting a long time for effective labels.

In Europe, industry spent $1 billion resisting traffic lights. Do we know how much industry is spending on its submissions to the Blewett food labelling law review (Commonwealth of Australia 2009-2010)?”

• Catriona Bonfiglioli is a Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, whose research focuses on media representations and public health. References for this article are available on request. Post a note at Croakey and they will be sent to you.