Saturday, September 17, 2011


The million dollar question that haunts the consumers and policy makers world over is whether the existing food labeling practices really serve the purpose for which it is intended and if not what further needs to be done. If the label declarations are meant to fulfill the "right to know" obligation by the processing industry, the present label declarations can be considered adequate and nothing more needs to be done. However the ever growing obesity epidemic that is being witnessed in may affluent countries casts a shadow regarding the "effectiveness" of communication between the consumer and the industry. Why do people continue to consume high calorie, high fat, high salt containing foods though their levels in the product are declared on front of the label in a legible manner? Could it be because many consumers, some illiterate and others inattentive, fail to understand the implications of consuming such foods? Probably the advocates promoting the graphic depiction mode to be included in the label have most of such consumers in mind and their case is that color coded safety signals may catch attention more easily than facts and figures conveyed at present. While the UK has promoted such a system, the EU did not want the same to be introduced in its member countries. Australia wants to include the traffic light system as a mandatory practice for food industry in the country though the industry is opposing it tooth and nail. Here is a report about the turmoil that is prevailing in that country on this issue.

"Food industry groups such as the Australian Food and Grocery Council and key players in the sugar industry oppose the traffic light system -- which imposes green, amber and red indicators based on fat, sugar and salt contents in food -- arguing that it could turn consumers away from some natural products such as milk, which contains fat and saturated fat, or fruit juice, which contains natural sugar. The Nationals' conference in Canberra at the weekend passed a resolution against the traffic light system after Queensland senator Ron Boswell produced examples that gave sultanas three green lights and a red light for sugar -- the same as for confectionery. The examples produced by the food and grocery council also show milk scores three amber lights -- for fat, saturated fat and sugar -- and a green light for salt. Coca-Cola scores green lights for fat, saturated fat and salt, and a red light for sugar. While sections of the food industry are opposed to the move, recommended in the January food labelling report by former federal health minister Neal Blewett, consumer group Choice and public health advocates are strongly in favour of it".

It is true that there are incongruities in the system which is based on the levels of sugar, fat, salt, fiber etc as being pointed out by its opponents and these are to be addressed before it can become universally acceptable. How can a soft drink like Coca Cola can get a green light while natural apple juice attracts the red color? If this system can be refined and some of these anomalies are rectified there is no reason why the traffic light system cannot work reasonably well to equip the consumer to make wise choices while going through the retail market isles. One may recall the red or green "dot" sign appearing in the food packets manufactured in India which has high relevance in a country like India where vegetarianism predominates and millions of Indians are grateful to the industry for introducing such a system enabling them to buy more processed foods with confidence. Same way traffic light system can also be a boon to many consumers if properly designed and practiced.


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