Tracey Cooper takes a look at the rules being considered for new food labels in Australia and New Zealand.
Health claims on food could become more common if the billion-dollar Australian grocery industry has its way. But don't expect anything to happen very quickly.
A standard for health claims on food packaging has been more than 10 years in the making and when a draft standard was released in February, most thought it would be that version which would finally be put to the combined Australia and New Zealand food standards authority, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), for approval.
But a submission to the draft standard by the powerful Australian Food and Grocery Council - the leading organisation representing Australia's $108 billion food, drink and grocery manufacturing industry - says the draft is "extremely inadequate and unworkable" and it wants more consultation.
"The draft standard will not provide consumers with accurate information, will add significant burden and costs to industry and will significantly stifle innovation in food product," the council submission says.
Many claims on food would be "rendered illegal" under the new regime and packaging on an estimated 30,000 items on supermarket shelves would need changing, costing "hundreds of millions of dollars".
It estimates the cost of changing one label can be more than $15,000.
Council acting chief executive Geoffrey Annison says council members want to ensure existing "factual and scientifically based" health claims are able to continue to be used under the future labelling regime.
The initial draft included the plan to have all health claims substantiated before going to market, but the council, in its submission, proposed that manufacturers be allowed to make any health claims and market any product based on their own research.
If the claims were challenged, manufacturers would provide a dossier of research for authorities to verify, in much the same way as they do now.
And while Australian consumer advocacy group Choice says that was akin to the fox guarding the henhouse, New Zealand food safety campaigner Sue Kedgley says having to have all manufacturers' health claims approved before a product could be sold would create another level of bureaucracy.
"I wouldn't mind if the industry made health claims, but they had to be able to - on request - provide substantiated evidence of the claim that is made," Kedgley says.
"I can sort of see that if you say you've got to have a pre-clearance, you almost set up a new bureaucracy - then you've got to have pre-clearance for everything and all these officials. It can be quite a bureaucratic and time-consuming process."
Choice head of campaigns Matt Levey says the industry lobby groups were "fiercely resisting" the proposal to subject health claims to scrutiny by food regulators, but he was confident government ministers would want to protect consumers from overzealous health marketing and "we are hopeful of a sensible outcome after decades of consultation on this issue".
There may eventually be a sensible outcome, but it's unlikely there will be a quick outcome.
This month, Health Minister Kate Wilkinson backed business claims for a more workable approach and more time to find that approach when she attended a Canberra meeting of the trans-Tasman Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation.
She says businesses have raised concerns that requiring all health claims to be pre-market assessed would be "overly prescriptive" for general level health claims, which refer to health, and not a specific disease or disorder.
The meeting agreed to look for other options for general health claims, which the minister says "is a step in the right direction".
"New Zealand produces some really innovative foods for health and so it's important we develop a framework for label claims that supports our innovative producers and provides confidence for consumers."
But Mojo Mathers, the Green Party spokeswoman on food, says the onus should be on producers to back up their health claims, not for consumers to have to challenge them.
"I don't have a lot of faith in the industry's ability to self-regulate," she says.
"Putting the obligation on consumers to identify dodgy claims is not the way to ensure we have watertight labelling for health claims. It's the Food and Grocery Council's job to protect its members, but it's FSANZ's job to protect consumers, so that should be FSANZ's top concern."
She wanted an approach that will "promote innovation of high-quality products while still protecting New Zealand consumers".
"It doesn't have to be a tradeoff."
Under the current rules, there's only one health claim allowed on food labels: for folic acid, which helps prevent neural tube defects in developing foetuses.
However, Consumer says the lack of rules makes it too easy for manufacturers to market foods using claims about health benefits that aren't backed up by good evidence.
"Their main trick is to promote a single nutritional aspect of a food that's otherwise of limited nutritional benefit - for example, a ‘fat free' salad dressing that's high in sugar and sodium," the Green MP says.
Consumer has been campaigning for a new standard for years, but Kedgley says there's no need to wait for the "politics of procrastination" to run its course.
"You've got all these officials spending large amounts of money flying to Australia over decades to attend all these meetings."
But "under the Free Trading Act, you're not supposed to be able to make any false or misleading claims and they have the power right now to do something about it, but no one seems to be doing any monitoring".
"This has been going on for a decade, but why isn't anyone just ambling into supermarkets randomly picking up products and requiring substantiated evidence for some of these claims? I've seen claims which are manifestly untrue and that's what I object to. The problem is everyone's passing the buck," she says.
"Now, the onus would be on the Crown to prove it was misleading, whereas what one wants is the onus to be on the manufacturers to substantiate any claims they make.
"I don't mind how they do it, but surely no-one should be able to make untruthful claims. People can take these claims seriously and you shouldn't be able to mislead people."
Health claims on packaged foods, she says, "are actually marketing claims and the key issue is they must be truthful".
On the issue of truthful claims, everyone seems to agree and Annison says consumers must have "continuing trust in the truthfulness of label statements".
"We think consumers are entitled to know the substantiated positive health aspects of the food they eat, just as they are informed about potentially harmful ingredients."
But given the amount of time already taken to come up with a draft standard, it may be several years before any standard is agreed to.
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