Food industry hesitant about new Australian food labelling system

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 17th June 2013

Australian food industry representative body the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) has warned the Australian government that “serious flaws” remain and need to be resolved if an effective Front-of-Pack nutrition labelling system (FoPL) is to be implemented. However, the new system has been tentatively welcomed by Australia’s confectionary industry.

General Australian industry representative body, Ai Group, which also worked with the committee to develop the system, said the results were welcomed by the confectionary industry.

“The confectionary industry wants to ensure consumers have a clear understanding about their favourite treat,” said Tim Piper, Confectionary Industry Principal Advocate with Ai Group.

But Ai Group said there were a “number of peripheral and substantive issues” to be worked through before the system could be introduced to the broad food industry.

Meanwhile, the AFGC said it was “unfortunate” that the announcement had been “rushed out” by the Australian government “without any cost benefit analysis or evidence that it will achieve the outcomes it is seeking”.

“The AFGC and the food processing sector is willing to remain engaged in the development of the FoPL scheme, but a number of outstanding issues will need to be resolved in order to effectively implement an easily understood labelling system to promote healthy, balanced diets,” said Gary Dawson, AFGC CEO.

The AFGC said that the food industry believes there are still “significant problems” with the proposal, but that food manufacturers were committed to working towards a solution.

Food industry to bear cost, says AFGC

One issue identified by the AFGC is the cost of implementing such a system.

“The food industry is expected to carry the $200 million cost of implementing this scheme while also dealing with an additional regulatory burden,” AFGC CEO Mr Dawson said. “If industry is going to make this investment in a new FoPL system, it must be based on sound and credible science, effective in communicating with consumers and practical and attractive for industry to implement,” he said.

Star calculations could ‘mislead’ consumers

The food industry is also concerned about how the star ratings would be calculated, and whether the system might just serve to further confuse consumers. Australian Food News reported in October 2012 that there were similar debates around the effectiveness of the UK’s ‘traffic light’ food labelling scheme.

“An effective FoPL system will need to resolve issues such as how the star system is calculated to avoid anomalous ratings that will undermine the credibility of the scheme and potentially mislead consumers,” said Mr Dawson.

“It will also need to address whether there will be substantial funds to educate consumers on how to use the labelling for healthy diet selection and if the government is prepared to undertake a robust and credible cost-benefit analysis,” Mr Dawson added.

CHOICE welcomes consumers benefit but AFGC wanted DIG

But consumer group CHOICE, which was part of the committee that developed the star ratings system, said that the new system will mean time-poor consumers can make decisions about the health benefits of a food quickly and easily.

“CHOICE welcomes the decision by food and health ministers to implement a star rating scheme that will enable consumers to make healthier choices at-a-glance,” said Alan Kirkland, CHOICE CEO.

“In particular, we welcome the time frame ministers have imposed on the implementation of the labelling scheme, which, in the first instance, will be voluntary. This puts the onus on industry to embrace the Health Star Rating or face a mandatory approach,” Mr Kirkland said.

However, the AFGC said that international research had proved the success of existing labelling systems like the Daily Intake Guide (DIG) in helping consumers identify healthier choices.

According to the AFGC, an in-store audit of major Australian supermarkets conducted in May 2013 found the use of DIG labels had increased more than 60 per cent since 2011, with the labelling system gaining wide acceptance across all major categories.

“DIG is a $72  million industry investment that provides consumers accurate and easy to understand information on labels,” Mr Dawson said. “It makes no sense to take away something that has wide acceptance and provides consumers with information they need to make healthy choices,” he said.