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Busy shoppers need a simple food labelling system so they can easily identify healthy and unhealthy food from the front of food packages. A new star rating system being developed in Australia could be the answer.

Rethinking front-of-pack labelling

For the last decade FOE, along with other New Zealand organisations concerned with improving our food environment, have backed a traffic light system as the best approach to simple and effective food labelling.

A recent development, the Australian Health Star Rating System, now gives grounds for a rethink about the best path forward for New Zealand.

FOE thinks the system, if successful in Australia, is New Zealand’s best bet for front-of-pack labels that will help consumers make healthier choices and motivate food manufacturers to reformulate their products. To be effective the system will need to become mandatory.

Australian Health Star Rating System

Health ministers from the Australian Federal Government and Australian states and territories have agreed on the introduction of a Health Star Rating System. This will help people easily distinguish more healthy food choices.

The Star System is still under development, with completion planned for around the end of 2013. The example below shows what will appear on the front of food packages.

Health Star rating system

The system will use a rating scale from ½ to 5 stars, with more stars indicating a better nutritional choice. There will also be nutrient information icons for energy, saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugars. One positive nutrient such as calcium or fibre can also be added.

Support for the scheme

Australian groups that previously supported a traffic light system have changed to strongly advocating for full implementation of the stars. These include the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Medical Association, Cancer Council Australia, the Obesity Policy Coalition, and national consumer organisation CHOICE.

Food manufacturing representatives, under some government pressure,  were involved in development of the system. Some, however, have been having second thoughts. It remains to be seen whether they succeed in watering down the scheme.

The Daily Intake Guide System (DIG) is preferred by food manufacturers. Healthy food advocates have criticised this system.

How Australia got to the Star system

A Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy recommended introduction of interpretive food labelling in Australia and New Zealand. (Interpretive labels provide information about how healthy a food is.) Traffic light labels are an example. Green lights indicate a food can be eaten often, while red lights mean it should be only eaten as a treat, if at all.

Australian health ministers rejected traffic lights, and instead set up a process to develop the Health Star Rating System – which is also interpretive.

The need for a rethink on food labelling for New Zealand

There is now a strong case in New Zealand for supporting the Australian star system instead of traffic lights:

  • Organisations and people in Australia who were among the strongest advocates of traffic light labelling have stopped talking about traffic lights and are strongly supporting the star system.
  • It is not realistic to think New Zealand might adopt traffic lights if Australia has another system. The Australian labels will start turning up in our supermarkets, and there are strong arguments for having a single trans-Tasman system.

Views vary among New Zealand healthy food advocates familiar with both traffic lights and the star system. Some are unsure whether the star system would be as good as a traffic light system. Others, including FOE, think it could be as good, or perhaps better. At this stage we need to wait and see what finally emerges in Australia.

There are signals from the New Zealand Government that they are considering support for the star system, but with a strong emphasis on it remaining voluntary.

Australian health ministers have indicated that the star system could become mandatory if food manufacturers fail to widely adopt it voluntarily.

If it became mandatory in Australia it would become part of the trans-Tasman Food Code. It is not easy for New Zealand to opt out of Food Code provisions, so the pressure would be on New Zealand to agree to mandatory adoption.

Page updated 28 October 2013