Monday, June 24, 2013


Scouting for good but healthy foods is a nightmare for many families visiting a supermarket where thousands of products are presented as attractively as possible tempting the buyers to pick them up. While the price tag and expiry date weigh heavily in making purchase decisions so often, some discerning buyers do glance through the nutrition labeling though it is far from clear as to how much they really understand! Food safety authorities world over deserve kudos for putting in place a "front of the pack"  labeling regime that is helpful to millions of consumers to have a better understanding about the contents of the pack before making actual purchase and over the years the system is progressively being modified to make it more and more transparent and consumer friendly. Still attempts are going on in some parts of the world to bring about more clarity and in one such attempt in Australia, a new type of labeling guideline is being introduced to enable the consumer to decide at the first sight itself how healthy the product is without being forced to spend time and efforts to read through the fine printed information presently in vogue. This system is based on a system of star rating and following critique gives an idea about its mode of working and logistics of implementation.

The introduction of an easy-to-understand food labelling system was a key recommendation of the 2011 Blewett review of food labelling commissioned by the federal government. But reaching consensus on the best system to implement has been difficult. Food manufacturers have voluntarily adopted their industry's own percentage daily intake (%DI) labelling scheme since 2006. But the scheme doesn't meet the Blewett review's requirement for an "interpretive" system. The daily intake system only presents information about the contribution that a single serve of food makes to the "average" person's daily dietary requirement. It has been criticised as being confusing for consumers, and potentially misleading. The Blewett review specifically recommended traffic-light labelling, which uses green, amber and red to show, at a glance, the relative healthiness of products, as the preferred scheme. The recommendation was strongly supported by public health groups. But traffic-light labels are vociferously opposed by industry, primarily because food manufacturers don't want to put red (negative) labels on their products. By the end of 2011, the federal government had rejected the call to implement traffic-light labelling. This was widely seen as government caving in to lobbying pressure from the food industry, which has been extremely active in its campaign against traffic-light labelling, both in Australia and internationally. In an effort to develop a labelling system that could be supported by all parties, the federal government established a multi-sectoral committee to work on a proposal for a new scheme in 2012. In May 2013, this committee finalised their recommendations for the health star system. The scheme is based on a system proposed by the US Institute of Medicine. Under the proposed system, processed foods will be labelled using a scale ranging from half a star (least healthy) to five stars (healthiest). The front of food packages will also have an icon showing the number of kilojoules in the product, and nutrient information on saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Only the kilojoules in the product will be expressed in terms of recommended daily intake.Foods that are considered healthy (using government-defined criteria) will also be able to list a single "positive" nutrient (such as calcium) icon on the front of the package. And the standard nutrition information panel that is currently displayed on the back of the pack would remain in place. The system will initially be voluntary, and implementation is expected to be accompanied by a government-sponsored marketing campaign to explain and promote it.

Though on paper it looks really good, implementing the same will be a hard job because of the difficulties involved in assigning stars to thousands of products with different chemical and nutrient composition. Still it should be possible to implement the new guidelines in cooperation with the industry. Since the star rating system is voluntary at present there may not be any serious hiccups during the initial period as most products with good health credentials will queue up for getting the coveted star rating and once products start appearing in the market with the health star icons printed on the front, a positive force is likely to be unleashed that will push more and more manufacturers into the star rating system. When fully implemented the market environment may become so sanitized that bad and unhealthy packed foods would probably disappear from the shelves sooner than later! One aspect about this new policy which cannot be appreciated is that the government does not want to make it mandatory in the interest of its citizens. Probably industry may eventually be forced to implement the star grading system by mandatory policy compulsions.    


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