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Continuing some of the themes of the previous post, Jane Martin, senior policy adviser with the Obesity Policy Coalition, urges the Government to act on new food labelling recommendations.

Jane Martin writes:

Late last week a review into labelling led by Dr Neal Blewett released its recommendations in a report “Labelling Logic”.  This title says it all: it is self-evident that packaging and labelling, particularly on the front of packs, affects what we eat.

The review has put health and prevention at the core of its findings, which is critical at a time when poor diets are contributing significantly to rising levels of chronic disease.

The recommendations supporting traffic light labelling on packaged food and fast food menus have the potential to help consumers cut through the marketing spin; making choosing healthy products much easier. Traffic lights involve representing levels of fat, sugar and salt in items using red, amber and green symbols on the front of the pack.  This simple system enables consumers to identify at a glance what is in the product and to compare this with similar products, before taking the pack off the supermarket shelf or placing a fast food order.

This is a system that has strong support from the public health community, state and territory governments and others. New Cancer Council Victoria research indicates that 87% of Australian consumers are in favour of traffic light labelling on food packaging.

The majority (77%) of food industry submissions to the review were opposed to the traffic light scheme. This is not surprising, given that the scheme would put red lights on many highly processed products that are marketed as healthier options but in reality are high in saturated fat, sugar or salt.

The reaction of the peak body for the processed food industry, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, to the report was predictable: they rejected traffic light labelling and launched a new campaign promoting the industry’s Percent Daily Intake labelling scheme.

This was despite the clear conclusion of the review that the Percent Daily Intake system is ‘confusing for consumers’ and ‘especially problematic for consumers with low levels of literacy who cope better with pictures than numbers’. As the review panel explained, the system is extremely difficult for consumers to use in the context of their diets, as they need to keep track of, and add up, the percentage of each nutrient they consume from different products during the course of a day.

On the other hand, the review concluded that the traffic light labelling system ‘has been consistently found to be most effective’ in helping consumers to understand the nutritional value of foods. Traffic light labels are better understood by consumers with low levels of literacy or from lower socio-economic and culturally diverse groups. Importantly for government, traffic light labels would be cost-effective and excellent value for money as an obesity-prevention measure.

Over the next year, while Australian governments consider the recommendations and develop their responses, the processed food industry will continue to fight hard to stop a simple and effective system traffic light system.

In Europe, the food industry reportedly spent over €1 billion in lobbying to oppose the introduction of traffic light labelling on the front of packs in the European Union.

Let’s hope that the commercial influence of the food industry and their lobbyists will be resisted by Australian politicians and that the interests of the public’s health will be front and centre when they consider the review panel’s recommendations.

While the review has recommended that traffic light labels be introduced initially on a voluntary basis, let’s also hope that at least some food manufacturers get on board to help improve the health of Australians. If the Australian Food and Grocery Council really do want to be “part of the solution” to the obesity problem, as they so often claim, then they should support, not oppose traffic lights. But the Council’s initial response to the review may indicate that a mandatory approach will ultimately be needed.

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