Ministers announce future of food labelling

The results are a mixed bag.
 
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01 .Big strides made but opportunities also missed

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Australia’s food and health ministers have handed down their decisions on the future of food labelling, and the menu contains mixed results for consumers.

Meeting in Melbourne on 9 December, the newly named ‘Forum on Food Regulation’ (previously the Food Regulation Ministerial Council) responded to the 61 recommendations of the independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy, delivered almost a year earlier in January 2011.

While the ministers took some big strides in the right direction, they also missed a number of major opportunities to help consumers make informed decisions about what they eat.

Overall, CHOICE rates the response on our Better Food labelling Campaign priorities two and a half stars out of five – with most chances for bonus points left languishing on the table.

For more News, see Consumer news.

What has CHOICE been campaigning for in the interests of consumers?

Priority 1: Stamping out dodgy health and nutrition claims

CHOICE launched the Better Food Labelling Campaign with ‘Shame the Claim’, drawing attention to dodgy nutrition claims, and calling on governments to heed the experts’ advice and take action. To make the point, we collected some of the worst offenders in our ‘Wall of Shame’, showing how claims like ‘Source of fibre’ and ‘98% fat free’ can make products which are high in saturated fat, sugars and sodium appear healthy.

The good news is that ministers have made some progress towards stamping out dodgy health and nutrition claims by requesting that the chief food agency, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), consult and report on the Review Panel’s recommendation that all products carrying health and nutrition claims comply with a nutrient profiling system. This would mean that the healthy and unhealthy attributes of a product would be evaluated and given an overall rating which determines whether they can make a health or nutrition claim. A final decision is expected in June 2012 and, to be effective, it is imperative that consumers are part of the consultation process.

CHOICE will keep advocating for governments to stamp out dodgy health and nutrition claims because the evidence shows that such claims make healthy decisions difficult for consumers.

On this priority, we give the Forum on Food Regulation half a star pending further developments.  

Priority 2: Traffic light Labelling

CHOICE has supported the introduction of a traffic light nutrition labelling system because research has shown that it helps consumers make healthy decisions about what they eat. We were pleased to see ministers commit to interpretive front-of-pack labelling because it would help time-poor shoppers make healthier decisions at-a-glance.

Interpretive labelling means that the complex, numerical information from the nutrition information panel, located on the side or back of the pack, is interpreted for the consumer with some sort of symbol or rating. It can be contrasted with the non-interpretive ‘Daily Intake Guides’ preferred by industry that require you to get out a calculator and tally up a series of percentages.

While the commitment to interpretive labelling rules out Daily Intake Guides as the future approach, CHOICE was disappointed that the Forum stopped short of introducing traffic light labelling as recommended by the expert review.

Overall, the door has been opened to more effective front-of-pack labelling and it was encouraging that Ministers referred to the Healthy Eating System developed by Sanitarium as worth further consideration. This approach is interpretive and colour coded and CHOICE believes that it has potential to provide consumers the information they need to make healthier decisions.

Consumer representation will be essential in ensuring that the system that is agreed on provides useful information that can lead to healthier choices. CHOICE looks forward to working with other stakeholders and will continue advocating for effective, interpretive front-of-pack labelling.

So it’s another half star for the Forum a star on this priority.

Priority 3: Improving country-of-origin labelling

On country-of-origin labelling, the Forum’s response was evenly split among good news and bad.

So, the good news first: ministers supported the recommendation to close the current loopholes pending the finalisation of a review by the regulator, FSANZ. Currently, country-of-origin labelling is mandatory for all packaged foods and unpackaged fruits, vegetables, pork and seafood and FSANZ is finalising a proposal to extend mandatory labelling to beef, sheep and chicken meat. Ministers indicated that they would request the regulator to develop a further proposal to extend country-of-origin labelling to all primary products for retail sale.

But the bad news is that the Forum has missed the opportunity to clear up the confusion around the terms used in country-of-origin labelling. The experts had recommended a framework and suggested a standard based on ingoing weight, that is, the percentage of the ingredients that are Australian or otherwise. While ministers recognised the confusion consumers (and industry) experience with the current system, their only response was a half-hearted suggestion that education materials should be reviewed.

CHOICE knows that country-of-origin labelling is one of the biggest sources of consumer frustration around food labelling and we will continue to advocate for reform. For now, we’re only giving the Forum half a star on this priority.

Priority 4: Free range labelling standards

Ministers took no meaningful action on animal welfare claims used to market food products, like ‘free range’ labels on eggs and meat products. This typifies a broader reluctance to recognise examples where the market is not providing consumers with the confidence to make informed decisions about the food they eat.

The Review Panel supported industry self-regulation for consumer values issues except in cases of market failure which would justify prescriptive regulation. This means that industries would be responsible for consistent, helpful labelling around issues like fair trade, environmental credentials and animal welfare claims except where it is clear that markets – that is, industries – are not responding to consumer demands for information. CHOICE believes that there is mounting evidence of market failure around ‘free range’ labelling.

The need for a stronger regulatory approach has been starkly demonstrated since the Review Panel completed its final report. For example, the Egg Corporation proposed a fanciful free range egg standard of 20,000 bird per hectare (the RSPCA standard is 1,500) and the New South Wales Upper House passed legislation defining ‘free range’.

Meanwhile, consumers are continuing to pay a premium for products marketed as ‘free range’ when there are no agreed definitions about what that term means.

CHOICE understands that there is support among some members of the Forum for developing definitions around free range labelling. It is disappointing to see that this enthusiasm did not carry forward into action. While CHOICE would welcome an effective standard developed through Standards Australia, in consultation with stakeholders, we believe that governments need to show leadership on this issue given the current industry confusion.

On this issue, the Forum gets a zero.

Priority 5: Framework for food labelling

CHOICE’s final priority was the development of a framework for food labelling through the implementation of key recommendations that would put consumer health front and centre of food labelling into the future.

It’s good news for consumers here, with ministers committing to developing a National Nutrition Policy and guidelines that will ensure that health is a consideration in food labelling regulation.

CHOICE gives the Forum a star on this priority.

 
 

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There were numerous other issues up for consideration by the Forum which included opportunities to give consumers important information about the food they eat.

There was progress on kilojoule (energy) content labelling on fast food menus with the Forum taking steps to ensure nationally consistent information but stopping short of mandating national menu board labelling.  There was also a step forwards on hidden ingredients with ministers referring the Review Panel’s recommendations that the sources of added sugars and fats should be declared on food labels to FSANZ for technical advice. Hopefully this will result in the labelling of palm oil which many consumers would like to avoid for health or environmental reasons.

Ministers also committed to a mandatory warning message about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant. However, their decision means that mandatory labelling will follow a two year period to allow for voluntary industry take up, and there was a rejection of the Review Panel’s recommendation for general warning labels.

The Forum failed to commit to the already industry-friendly recommendation that trans fats be mandatorily declared if they are not phased out by January 2013, and instead questioned the need for a phase out.

Finally, Ministers refused to close loopholes on labelling of genetically modified foods and rejected calls for products made with ‘new technologies’, like nanotechnology, to be labelled for 30 years instead committing to ‘case by case’ consideration.

CHOICE verdict

Overall, the progress on interpretive front-of-pack labelling, health and nutrition claims, country-of-origin loopholes and a health framework are important wins for consumers. Unfortunately, these wins are almost matched by missed opportunities on the key priorities of country-of-origin format and free range definitions.

When the additional failures on new technologies and hidden ingredients are added to the mix, the final result looks a little half-baked. CHOICE will continue to call for better food labelling and we hope to be part of developments on those priority areas the Forum has chosen to act on. We are confident that despite the missed opportunities, the future of food labelling is looking better for Australian consumers.

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