Food labelling debate flares up

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 6th April 2009

The introduction of a traffic light system on the front of products would represent an overly simplistic approach to food labelling, according to the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), which represents food and grocery manufacturers.

Prominent consumer group, The Parents Jury, this morning urged the government to introduce traffic light labelling on the front of food packaging, joining the chorus of calls from a number health and consumer groups supporting this labelling option. Choice and The Cancer Council are among other major groups supporting traffic light labelling.

AFGC Chief Executive Kate Carnell said the Parents Jury’s assertions today that using red, amber and green traffic lights for levels of fat, sugar and salt on packaged foods, allowed parents to make a more informed choice were misleading and inaccurate.

“Traffic light labelling is an overly simplistic approach to the very important issue of food labelling in Australia,” Ms Carnell claimed. “There is no scientific or government research to demonstrate that any food labelling system is substantially better than others.”

The food and grocery industry believes the Daily Intake Guide would be a better option to pursue, with a number of manufacturers already committing to this front-of-pack labelling scheme*.

“This format containing factual information has been highly effective and provides the least chance of misleading consumers – the information that goes on food packaging has to be the truth and the laws governing food production and labelling are quite rightly very strict,” Ms Carnell suggested.

Traffic light labelling versus Daily Intake Guide

Traffic light labels display fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium levels in three separate colour coded circles. Green means a food is low in the respective contents, while amber is medium and red is high. The Daily Intake Guide highlights the contribution of contents (including saturated fat, total fat, sugar and salt) provided per serve as a percentage of the recommended daily intake for an adult.

Pros and Cons

The arguments for and against traffic light labeling are many and varied, including:

  • Easy to use vs. too simplistic
  • Draws attention to unhealthy products and gets consumers to reconsider purchases vs. doesn’t encourage variety, balance and moderation
  • Promotes selection of healthier products vs. doesn’t highlight how to incorporate the product as a part of a healthy diet
  • Focus on per 100gm allows ease of comparison vs. doesn’t show ‘per serve’ figures meaning it might not focus on amounts likely to be eaten

Two-thirds of people in a recent Newspoll survey of 1200 people, commissioned by the AFGC, found that 74 per cent of consumers aware of the Daily Intake labelling system with 66 per cent saying it was easy to understand. While an Ipsos-Eureka Social Research Institute survey last year, commissioned by a group of health and consumer groups including the Cancer Council and Choice, discovered 81 per cent of shoppers could correctly identify healthier foods using traffic light labelling, compared to 64 per cent of surveyed shoppers correctly identifying healthier foods using the Daily Intake Guide.

An overall review of labelling is currently being conducted as part of the COAG (Council Of Australian Governments) initiatives.

* Daily Intake Guides are now on more than 1100 cereal, cheese, biscuits and drink products outlining average daily intake requirements of fat, sugar and salt.