New food labels for consumers

New food labelling recommendations will affect the information we currently have on food labels.
 
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01 .Seven demands for better food labelling

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CHOICE made a detailed submission to the independent food labelling review panel, highlighting seven demands for better food labels to help consumers make informed choices about their food - how healthy it is, where it comes from, and how it’s been produced.

Should labelling laws be used to promote healthy food choices? Can we trust the food industry to regulate food labelling itself? How can we make sure consumers can read and understand food labels? These are just some of the questions address by the review panel chaired by former health minister Dr Neal Blewett. The panel's report was released on 28 January 2011 and includes 61 recommendations that could change what we see on food labels.


Video: Consumer Update - Food Labelling Review

Senior Food Policy Advisor, Clare Hughes, discusses the new independent food labelling review and what it means to you

Our key demands, and the panel's response to those demands, are highlighted below. 

Demand 1

What we wanted
An overarching food labelling policy that clearly establishes the role of food labelling laws – and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) – in:
• supporting preventive health strategies;
• protecting public health and safety, including the long-term health implications as well as immediate risks associated with food;
• providing information that helps consumers to make informed choices about the foods they buy; and
• preventing misleading and deceptive conduct in marketing, labelling and advertising.

What we got
The recommendations are a win for consumers who want to make healthy choices. The panel made a number of recommendations that make consumers' health and safety top priority, and strengthen the role of food labelling in encouraging healthy choices. However, other 'consumer values' labelling issues that aren't related to health and safety (e.g labelling of sustainable and ethical choices) will mostly be regulated by the food industry.

Demand 2

What we wanted
Traffic light nutrition labels for fats, sugars, and sodium on the front of food labels to support government preventative health measures and help consumers to make healthy food choices at a glance.
 
What we got
Mostly a win! The panel recommended that a front of pack traffic light labelling system be introduced to help to drive healthy choices. They recommended that it be voluntary in the first instance but mandatory for any product making a marketing claims about supposed health benefits. To be most effective, CHOICE wants the government to make it mandatory on a broader range of products.  The recommendations didn't go far enough for CHOICE but they're an important first step and a win for consumers.
 

Demand 3

What we wanted
An end to dubious and unsubstantiated marketing claims about nutrition content and health benefits on sugary, salty and fatty foods.
 
What we got
A definite win for consumers! The panel recommended tightening of proposed health claims regulation so that any product making a claim about nutrient content (e.g. a good source of calcium) or health benefit (e.g. helps lower cholesterol) must be healthy and pass special nutrient profiling criteria. This means an end to claims about sugary, fibre flimsy breakfast cereals being a good source of (added) vitamins and minerals.
 

Demand 4 

What we wanted
Expose hidden ingredients such as palm oil (on ingredients lists) and trans fats (on ingredients lists and nutrition information panels, and provide more informative additive and allergen information for consumers who need to avoid particular ingredients.
 
What we got
The panel recommended that ingredients lists declare the source of added sugars and fats. This means that palm oil would be declared on food labels. This is designed to help consumers avoid unhealthy saturated fats but it's also good news for consumers who want to avoid palm oil because of sustainability concerns. The panel also recommended that if the food industry has not voluntarily reduced unhealthy trans fat in foods by 2013, then the government should require mandatory declaration of trans fat in the nutrition information panel when a product contains unhealthy levels of trans fats.

Demand 5

What we wanted 
Informative country of origin labels that help consumers to identify where key ingredients (fruit, vegetables, meat etc) have come from.
 
What we got
Food standards already require country of origin labelling for unpackaged fruit, vegetables, nuts, seafood and some deli products. The panel recommended extending country of origin labelling to all primary foods (e.g. meat, poultry, pork). The panel also recommended that country of origin labelling should be regulated in the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 rather than the Food Standards Code, suggesting that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) should develop a consumer information standard specifically relating to food, with clearer requirements for products with Australian ingredients.

Demand 6

What we wanted
Trustworthy information about food production methods and new technologies.
• Close the loopholes that allow processed GM ingredients like canola oil to be used in foods by not identified on the label.
• Labelling of products (and food packaging) derived from nanotechnology.
• Standards addressing ‘free-range’ and ‘organic’ claims.

What we got
A mixed response. We're disappointed that the panel did not make any recommendations to close the loophole that allows highly refined GM ingredients to be used in foods but not labelled as genetically modified. Nor were any foods standards for organic or free-range claims, but the panel did suggest that the Australian Standard on Organic and Biodynamic Products could be referenced in the Food Standards and that the free-range industries work to establish a similar (albeit voluntary) Australian Standard products labelled as 'free-range'. CHOICE would like these standards to be mandatory.
 
The panel recommended that foods derived from nanotechnology will have to be labelled for 30 years after the introduction of the technology - but this will be based on the 'direct impact' of the food or ingredient being consumed, which could leave this open to the sorts of loopholes we experience with genetically modified foods. How this recommendation would work in practice remains to be seen.

Demand 7

What we wanted
A regulatory approach to food labelling that:
• Maintains government responsibility for food labelling and consumer confidence in food labelling and the food supply; and
• Is effectively and consistently enforced by a single national regulator.

What we got
The Government will be responsible for regulating food labelling that relates to consumer health and safety issues (including new technologies). However other issues like animal welfare and sustainability, labelling for religious reasons etc will mostly be left to self-regulation.
 
There will be no single regulator responsible for enforcing food labelling standards but the panel recommended a trans-Tasman food labelling bureau that would responsible for education and monitoring and to act as a clearinghouse for complaints. Provided the bureau is adequately resourced, this could mean that food labelling will be more effectively monitored that it currently is by state health departments with bigger priorities.
 
To find out more, and to read the final report of the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy, visit www.foodlabellingreview.gov.au

 
 

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02.Food labelling review: threat or opportunity?

 

The review of Australia’s food labelling laws and policies is an opportunity to provide better information about the food we eat – but it could also threaten the information Australian consumers now take for granted.

 

The review was initiated by the Commonwealth of Australian Governments’ Business Regulation and Competition Working Group as part of its agenda to reduce regulatory burden on business. Some food manufacturers might view food labelling laws as a burden, but consumers know they’re vital to helping us make healthy and informed choices about what we eat.

 

CHOICE has successfully fought for nutrition information panels, detailed ingredient lists, country-of-origin labelling and labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods, and much more. We can now all see what’s in our food, how healthy it is, and how and where it’s produced.

 

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Traffic light labels would help us make healthy choices quickly; health claims regulation would stop unhealthy foods advertising dubious health benefits; and loopholes in GM labelling laws should be closed. But we need to protect the important information we already have.

 

Food regulation – including labelling laws – is designed to protect public health and safety, provide consumer information and prevent misleading conduct. This review must not sacrifice the health and other interests of consumers in favour of watered-down food labelling laws or weaker industry codes that might suit some in the food industry.

 

CHOICE has been fighting for food labels that Australians can trust. This means keeping the labelling that’s important to you, improving things that aren’t working and adding helpful new information. Read our initial submission to the Food Labelling Review Panel.

 

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