Seeing stars: ministers poised to approve new food rating system but industry seeks a delay

Easy-to-interpret front-of-pack labels are expected to help consumers quickly assess the nutritive value of food and help fight the epidemic of chronic diseases. Jay Peg/Flickr

State and federal health ministers will meet today to approve a new star rating system for food packaging. Easy-to-interpret front-of-pack labels are expected to help consumers quickly assess the nutritive value of food and help fight the epidemic of obesity and related chronic diseases.

Much like the energy star rating system on electrical appliances, the proposed system for food labels would see healthier choices carry more stars.

The scheme is the outcome of a 15-month government-led process that aimed to develop an easy-to-understand front-of-pack food labelling system that could be applied countrywide. A project committee, including public health experts, consumer groups, representatives from the food and retail industries, and state and territory governments, developed detailed recommendations for the system. All aspects of it were agreed on by participating parties.

But despite having agreed to the recommendations as part of the project committee, the food industry is now calling for a delay in implementing the scheme, and is seeking to water down the proposal.

How we got here

The introduction of an easy-to-understand food labelling system was a key recommendation of the 2011 Blewett review of food labelling commissioned by the federal government. But reaching consensus on the best system to implement has been difficult.

Food manufacturers have voluntarily adopted their industry’s own percentage daily intake (%DI) labelling scheme since 2006. But the scheme doesn’t meet the Blewett review’s requirement for an “interpretive” system.

The daily intake system only presents information about the contribution that a single serve of food makes to the “average” person’s daily dietary requirement. It has been criticised as being confusing for consumers, and potentially misleading.

The Blewett review specifically recommended traffic-light labelling, which uses green, amber and red to show, at a glance, the relative healthiness of products, as the preferred scheme. The recommendation was strongly supported by public health groups.

But traffic-light labels are vociferously opposed by industry, primarily because food manufacturers don’t want to put red (negative) labels on their products.

By the end of 2011, the federal government had rejected the call to implement traffic-light labelling. This was widely seen as government caving in to lobbying pressure from the food industry, which has been extremely active in its campaign against traffic-light labelling, both in Australia and internationally.

In an effort to develop a labelling system that could be supported by all parties, the federal government established a multi-sectoral committee to work on a proposal for a new scheme in 2012. In May 2013, this committee finalised their recommendations for the health star system.

The health star system

The scheme is based on a system proposed by the US Institute of Medicine. Under the proposed system, processed foods will be labelled using a scale ranging from half a star (least healthy) to five stars (healthiest).

The front of food packages will also have an icon showing the number of kilojoules in the product, and nutrient information on saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Only the kilojoules in the product will be expressed in terms of recommended daily intake.

Foods that are considered healthy (using government-defined criteria) will also be able to list a single “positive” nutrient (such as calcium) icon on the front of the package. And the standard nutrition information panel that is currently displayed on the back of the pack would remain in place.

The 2011 Blewett review specifically recommended traffic-light labelling, which uses green, amber and red to show the relative healthiness of products. Ian Clark

The system will initially be voluntary, and implementation is expected to be accompanied by a government-sponsored marketing campaign to explain and promote it.

Consumers and industry

If widely implemented in the form currently proposed, the health star system would be a significant win for consumers. With already high and rising levels of diet-related chronic disease in the community, we urgently need relevant nutrition information in a format that’s easy to understand and interpret.

While it may not be as easy to understand as traffic-light labels, the health star system would be a substantial improvement on current %DI labelling. It’s likely to assist shoppers to make healthier choices.

Despite having agreed to the details of the health star system as part of a government-led development process, the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) is now seeking to make changes to the proposed system.

Specifically, the AFGC is pushing for %DI information to be retained for a broad range of nutrients. But public health experts have noted that %DI labelling is potentially misleading for consumers if used for risk-increasing nutrients, such as sodium. This is because it implies that consumers should aim for a daily consumption target for these nutrients. In fact, the %DI figures are based on upper limits for consumption, and health experts recommend that people consume considerably less than these limits.

The food industry is also expected to lobby for technical changes to the way the star ratings are calculated in order to present their less healthy products more favourably.

The current proposal is for star ratings to be calculated per 100g of the product. This standardisation makes it easy for consumers to make comparisons between products, and is considered by public health experts to be an essential part of the system.

But there’s a risk that the food industry will seek to change the calculations to be based on “serving size”. This would open the system up to manipulation as serving sizes are not standard.

Concerns have also been raised about the cost of implementing the scheme. But food manufacturers regularly redesign their product packages anyway, for promotional events such as competitions. And the long lead time (at least 12 months) as well as the voluntary nature of the scheme will mean that additional costs to industry are likely to be minimal.

Undoubtedly, the AFGC is hoping that a delay in government approval of the scheme beyond the upcoming federal election (September 2013) will result in more extensive delays or a scrapping of the system altogether.

Public health vs corporate interests

The goal of an improved labelling scheme is to assist consumers to make informed dietary choices and, in so doing, help improve the health of the population.

From a public health viewpoint, corporate efforts to undermine the government policy-making process are a serious concern. There’s a clear conflict of interest between big food companies seeking to profit from sales of their products (many of which are unhealthy) and public-interest efforts to reduce obesity and diet-related chronic disease.

The health star rating system has been successfully negotiated by a range of stakeholders, including both public health and industry groups. State and federal ministers have an opportunity today to approve the system, which, while not perfect, is nevertheless likely to result in substantial public health benefits and long-term savings to the health budget.