Food-labelling offers little to shoppers

Last updated 07:32 20/11/2012
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TOUGH CHOICE: How does a shopper choose work out which brands are healthier than the others?

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OPINION: In a few weeks' time, the governments of Australia and New Zealand will decide whether to introduce a new system on food labels that will enable consumers to see at a glance whether food is healthy.

At the moment, it's almost impossible for shoppers to work out from a label, whether food is healthy or laden with fat, sugar and salt. This makes shopping difficult for people who want to buy healthy food for their families, especially when there are so many foods to choose from in the supermarket.

There are 157 different varieties of cereal at my local supermarket, for example, and 72 different types of bread.

So how does a shopper choose between all these different brands and varieties, and work out which ones are healthier than the others?

Sure, there is a nutrition panel on most food products, but it is incomprehensible to most consumers.

That's why, according to numerous surveys, most consumers want something simple and easy-to- understand on a food label, such as a "traffic light" system, so they can see at a glance whether food is healthy.

The governments of Australia and New Zealand have been pondering whether to introduce such a system for more than six years.

There have been endless reports written about it, endless trans-Tasman meetings on the subject, and intensive policy debates.

These debates intensified last year when an expert panel, commissioned by Food Standards Australia New Zealand to review our food labels, recommended that both governments introduce a simple, "traffic light" label.

Under such a label, food that is low in fat, sugar and salt would have a green dot on it, while unhealthy food that was high in fat, sugar or salt would have a red dot on it.

Both governments quickly buckled under pressure from the food industry, which doesn't want to see red dots on its food, and rejected the idea of a traffic- light label.

But they did agree to develop some sort of "front of pack" labelling system that would interpret complex nutrition information in a simple way to help consumers. Expert panels were set up earlier this year, on both sides of the Tasman, to decide what sort of system they should introduce, and they have spent the past year deliberating on the issue.

Sadly, Official Information papers reveal that progress, on this side of the Tasman at least, has been slow, and that any scheme is unlikely to be effective.

After a year of deliberation, there is still no agreement on the format or design for an "interpretive" front-of-pack labelling scheme.

But there is agreement that any scheme will be voluntary, and that there will be no compulsion on food manufacturers to take part in it.

This means that manufacturers who produce unhealthy food are unlikely to get involved and that manufacturers who do take part will probably use it only on foods with a "better nutrition profile".

There is also agreement that any scheme should not "demonise" or "disparage" any individual food. (This is code for saying there will be no red dots or other symbols that suggest that food is unhealthy).

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Instead it will contain "positive messaging" that will, the industry- dominated panel hopes, "nudge" consumers towards healthier options, and manufacturers to produce healthier foods.

The panel agreed it was important that any system is used uniformly by the food industry, and that food manufacturers don't pick and choose elements of it, or use it randomly.

But since it's an entirely voluntary scheme, I can't see how it can be enforced.

The scheme will evaluate a whole food, including its positive and negative nutrients, which is a sensible approach.

And there is some suggestion that the Government could recommend a "ranked approach" with tiers, such as a star-rating system, which the Australians are apparently considering.

All in all, it looks as if any new scheme the Government recommends will be a far cry from a simple traffic- light system on all foods, which consumers, and the expert panel that reviewed our food labels, favour.

Instead it will be a voluntary scheme, brought in slowly over time, and will likely only appear on selected foods. And as it will contain only positive messages, it won't indicate clearly to consumers which food is unhealthy.

But I guess it's a start, at least, and it's something that can be built on over time.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- The Dominion Post

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