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Ministers back interpretive front-of-pack nutrition labelling

Australian and New Zealand ministers discussed front-of-pack food labelling at a recent meeting in Melbourne. One of their decisions has the potential to be a major step forward for public health. The ministers agreed that:

“an interpretative front-of-pack labelling system be developed that is reflective of a comprehensive Nutrition Policy and agreed public health priorities”.

An interpretive system attempts to make it easier for people to distinguish healthier from less healthy food choices.

FOE wants an interpretive system and has supported a traffic light system (using green, amber and red symbols) as the best available interpretive model.

Background

The ministers came to their decision at the meeting of the Forum on Food Regulation on 9 December 2011. The Forum (previously called the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council), comprised Australian federal, state and territory ministers, and Kate Wilkinson, New Zealand’s Minister of Food Safety.

The Forum met to make decisions on recommendations made by the review panel for the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy. One of the panel’s recommendations, following submissions from many public health and consumer groups, was the introduction of a multiple traffic light system.

Traffic lights not adopted by the Forum

Health and consumer groups were disappointed that the Forum didn’t adopt the recommendation for traffic light labels. However, the Forum’s decision to develop an interpretive system backs the main thrust of consumer and health submissions to the Review.

Officially the recommendation to introduce a traffic light system is “on hold” pending the outcome of a development process for an interpretive system.

Daily Intake Guide rejected by the Forum

Food industry submissions to the Review supported the Daily Intake Guide system (DIG). This was developed by the Australian Food and Grocery Council and supported by New Zealand’s Food and Grocery Council. The Forum effectively rejected this approach by noting that the DIG is not an interpretive system. It relies on people thinking about the percentage of recommended daily intake of various food components when making food choices.

The next step – developing a new system

The Forum called for further work to develop a front-of-pack system that builds on and seeks to overcome limitations of existing systems. They cite Sanitarium’s proposed Healthy Eating System which is a development of traffic light labels, and the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation’s eMark, as having “the potential to overcome the technical objections raised by industry”.

The next step is a government-led collaborative process “that brings polarised views together to build on existing common ground”. The timetable is to develop a new system by December 2012. Some stakeholders, both from public health and industry, think this timetable is too tight.

What if a collaborative approach fails?

The Forum concludes its statement on front-of-pack labelling as follows:

“If major points of difference are or can be resolved, consistent voluntary implementation by industry will be encouraged, supported by consumer education initiatives by government. Alternatively, depending on the level of consensus, either a pilot of the model interpretive system (if one is agreed) or a market-based comparative trial conducted by government, may be the next step.”

This is encouraging. The Forum appears to be saying it will not be happy for the status quo to continue, and unless industry moves to introduce an agreed interpretive system, governments will consider taking steps to bring pressure on them to do so.

Read the Forum’s Communique after the meeting.

Read the Forum’s report (PDF 542 KB)

Read FOE’s views on traffic light food labelling

Published on December 20, 2011 in New Zealand news,Traffic light labels