Most people doing their grocery shopping are probably blissfully unaware of the industry lobbying and backroom politics that determines what information appears on food labels.
So let’s start with some background. For almost two years, a Commonwealth government-led initiative involving public health and consumer groups, industry organisations as well as state government health authorities has been working to develop an interpretive front-of-pack food labelling scheme.
The proposed system echoes the “star ratings” already in use for choosing energy- or water-efficient refrigerators and washing machines, as well as hotels and restaurants. Put simply, the more stars, the healthier the food.
But since Australia’s food and health ministers confirmed their commitment to the health star rating system on December 13, 2013, there’s been a steady trickle of food industry media aimed at undermining the scheme. And it appears to be working.
What consumers want
The government-led process has been highly consultative and consumer research has and continues to inform the final design.
The health star rating was based on specially-commissioned consumer research that showed people understood the concept of a star rating for food, but still wanted information about the level of saturated fat, sugars, kilojoules, and sodium in different products.
The research also highlighted mistrust of food industry-led initiatives. Specifically, participants recognised that the company-determined serve sizes, which are the basis of the industry’s existing daily intake guide labelling initiative, are often a fraction of the portions people actually consume and make it difficult to compare different products.
They want front-of-pack nutrition information presented per 100 grams or 100 millilitres to allow for easy, more reliable comparison.
What the industry wants
Despite these findings, the Australian Food and Grocery Council has continued to champion its preferred daily intake guide.
The scheme doesn’t meet the criteria agreed on by federal and state health ministers in 2011 when they endorsed the Blewett review recommendation that a front-of-pack labelling system should provide an easy interpretation of a product’s healthiness and nutrition content.
The system is based on the amount (in percentage terms) that one serving of a product contributes to an “average” adult’s daily intake of 8,700 kilojoules and other nutrients.
But each food manufacturer is allowed to determine what serving size they will base their calculation on. And the same product from two different companies may provide the percentage of daily intake figure based on two different portions.
This variability, coupled with the fact that the serving sizes being used bear little resemblance to the portions that most people eat, has become the main point of contention for health and consumer groups.
The daily intake guide doesn’t allow shoppers to make meaningful product comparisons. Clearly, comparisons both within and across food categories are easier when based on standard portions, such as 100 grams.
Until consistent and meaningful serve sizes are developed in consultation with government, health and consumer groups, and industry, the system cannot be the focus of any government-endorsed front-of-pack labelling system.
An even better option
While many health and consumer groups involved in the development of the scheme are committed to the introduction of the health star rating scheme, it represents a substantial compromise on their preferred traffic light labelling system.
Originally developed by the UK Food Standards Agency in 2006, consumer research conducted there and in Australia had demonstrated that traffic-light systems are highly effective in assisting shoppers identify healthier foods.
Despite the development of the health star rating scheme, Australia continues to lag behind the UK where traffic light labelling is growing in acceptance among food companies, retailers and, of course, consumers (the scheme remains voluntary as mandatory labelling laws are enacted across the European Union).
When the UK government announced the introduction of a consistent front-of-pack food labelling system last year, most major UK supermarkets were either already using traffic light-based schemes or had announced that they would be doing so in the near future.
Increasing support for a traffic light-style scheme by UK food suppliers will generate further evidence about the value and influence of that food labelling system.
Meanwhile, any system introduced into the Australian marketplace must also be widely adopted by the food industry, supported by a public awareness campaign and subjected to extensive evaluation to ensure that it actually guides healthier food choices.
Better labelling on food packaging can help people make healthier food choices and easy comparisons at the supermarket. Despite the food industry’s efforts to undermine it, public health and consumer groups are committed to ensuring the health star rating scheme is widely adopted in Australia.
The author would like to acknowledge the contribution to this article by Wendy Watson, Nutrition Project Officer, and Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager who are both at Cancer Council NSW.