Food labelling logic- what really is the most logical approach?

Since the Government rejected the introduction of a traffic light food labelling system, public health advocates and industry representatives have been arguing about what method of food labelling would best assist consumers in making better choices. Traffic light labelling uses green, amber and red to show the relative levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a product. Yet the idea of a ‘star rating system’ may lead to a breakthrough in the debate.

With 3 in 5 Australian adults either overweight or obese (and 1 in 4 Australian children), the idea of a front of pack labelling system on food is currently being promoted by experts as one of best ways to address obesity. This initiative is highly endorsed by the independent expert Food Labelling Review panel, chaired by former Australian Health Minister Dr Neal Blewett. One of the recommendations it calls for is the voluntary introduction of a traffic light food labelling system. With traffic light labelling, shoppers are encouraged to buy those foods with mostly green lights and to steer away from those foods given red lights. While this recommendation was supported by various health and consumer groups, the Government has currently chosen not to introduce laws requiring traffic light labelling.

Greens Senator Dr Richard Di Natale has stated that the government’s decision not to pursue traffic light labelling was a 'missed opportunity'. The Greens, and various health organizations such as the Australian Medical Association (AMA), believe that unlike the current daily intakes guides, which are voluntarily used by some companies, traffic light labelling provides consumers with user-friendly information and allows them to make good choices quickly. In a paper written by the AMA, it is claimed that most of us are too busy to check labels, with most shoppers only spending an estimated 4 to 10 seconds choosing an item off the supermarket shelf. The paper also states that shoppers find the daily intake guide currently displayed by some companies on the front of their products difficult to understand and too technical, leading to many Australians avoiding using these guides altogether.

A study conducted by Choice revealed that while many of us might consider ourselves quite capable of reading these guides, only 64% of those surveyed were actually correct in picking the healthier option. When given the option of using traffic light labelling, 84% of participants were able to identify the better choice. The study also showed that even if shoppers were capable of reading the guides and following the recommended daily intake, they were still likely to make errors due to serving size variations between products. With the exception of chilled soups, all food categories were guilty of having a wide range of serving sizes for similar products, making comparing various brands difficult.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), which opposes traffic light labelling, has argued that there is no evidence to show that it works better than the daily intake guides. The results of a recent Newspoll survey show that that 78% of those surveyed have heard of the daily intake guides and that two out of three find the guides easy to read. However, what isn’t being as widely reported is that just under half of those surveyed had not used the guides to help decide whether to buy a particular product, while the remainder could not be sure. Kate Carnell, the former CEO of AFGC, has spoken widely about how traffic light labelling is too simplistic, with a bottle of soft drink given more green lights than a bottle of milk. She maintains that traffic light food labelling discourages people from eating foods such as cheese as they are told it is ‘bad’ and prevents shoppers from making their own decisions about what is healthy. This raises the bigger issue of whether Australians really need to be told what they should and should not be eating.

However, it appears advocates of traffic light labelling have come up against another barrier. Recently, ABC’s Lateline reported that the Government was likely to introduce a star-rating system as a means of front-of-pack labelling. This new approach would operate similarly to the current star rating system on white goods and was proposed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in the United States. While the system proposed by the IOM would have rated foods based on whether they complied with the daily intake of fat, salt and sugar (similar to traffic lights), it is likely the Australian approach will rate the product depending on its overall nutritional value. While this approach has met with support from public health organisations, industry groups and the Greens, advocates of traffic light labelling, including Dr Blewett, maintain that ‘while a star system would be better than nothing, it would not be as effective and traffic light labelling’. Also, there have been no studies done to ascertain how effective a star-rating system would be for consumers.

It is still unclear what front-of-pack labelling method the Government will adopt, if any. The Blewett report noted the submission from the Public Health Association of Australia that the implementation of the traffic light system ‘would enable all Australians and New Zealanders to make instant decisions on the healthiness of food and drink products, limit the need for extensive use of nutrition knowledge at the point of purchase and be available for use by all Australians regardless of literacy and numeracy skills’. The report also noted that the ‘current lack of standardisation with regards to front-of-pack labelling has the potential to cause further confusion among consumers’. Whatever form of front-of-pack labelling is chosen it must, as a minimum satisfy these criteria if it is to assist in addressing Australia’s obesity problem. If not, the debate over which labelling system should prevail is likely to continue.

The author would like to thank Amanda Biggs and Paula Pyburne for their assistance in preparing this post.
Food groups outlined in a traffic light styled window showing foods to eat sparingly, foods to eat moderately and foods to eat often


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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