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FRONT-OF-PACK LABELLING

Busy shoppers need a simple food labelling system so they can easily identify healthy and unhealthy food from the front of food packages. FOE thinks the Health Star Rating System, developed in Australia, is the best option for New Zealand. Find out how the star system came about and what happens next.

From traffic lights to the Health Star Rating System

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

But a recent development, the Australian Health Star Rating System, has led us to rethink the best path forward for New Zealand.

Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye announced on 27 June 2014 that New Zealand will adopt the star system.  It will be on a voluntary basis, at least initially. We think it should be mandatory.

It was almost inevitable, once Australia adopted the star system, that New Zealand would follow, given:

  • the high level of integration of trans-Tasman food manufacturing
  •  political commitments to Closer Economic Relations
  •  shared food standards.

We think the star system is New Zealand’s best bet for front-of-pack labels. They will help consumers make healthier choices and motivate food manufacturers to reformulate their products.

The Health Star Rating System

Australia’s Health Star Rating System followed from a decision by food and health ministers from the Federal Government, States and Territories to develop an interpretive system other than traffic lights.

Interpretive schemes such as the star system show, at a glance, the extent to which a food should form part of a healthy diet. There is evidence that such systems are particularly helpful to groups such as Māori, Pacific people and those on low incomes who are most at risk of obesity and nutrition-related chronic diseases.

 

Health star rating example

Sample health star rating label

 

The star system uses a rating from ½ to 5 stars. Except for some exclusions like alcohol, it can be used on all packaged food products for retail sale.

The more stars, the better the nutritional choice. There are also nutrient information icons for energy, saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugars. One positive nutrient, such as calcium or fibre, can also be added.

Read more about the origins and development of the Health Star Rating System.

Support from the health sector for the star system

Australian groups that previously supported a traffic light system now support full implementation of the star system. These include the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Medical Association, Cancer Council Australia, the Australian Heart Foundation, the Obesity Policy Coalition, and national consumer organisation CHOICE.

Public health advocates in Australia accept the star system is the only interpretive system that is politically feasible in the immediate future. They believe it represents a large and important forward step in providing a healthier food environment, but will probably need to become mandatory to be fully effective. FOE shares this view.

In New Zealand, the Medical Association, the Heart Foundation, Consumer and FOE came out in support of the star system following the Government announcement that New Zealand would adopt it.

Significantly, a widely representative Expert Panel of New Zealand public health people, lead by Professor Boyd Swinburn, endorsed the star system in its recent assessment of policy gaps and priorities relating to the New Zealand food environment. The Panel recommended that New Zealand follow Australia’s lead by making the star system mandatory if there is not widespread uptake by industry.

New Zealand philanthropist and healthy eating advocate Gareth Morgan is, as at October 2014, seeking signatories to a petition to the Food Minister to make the star system compulsory. 

Food industry views on the star system

The Australian food manufacturing industry, led by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), was involved in the development of the Health Star Rating System together with health and consumer representatives. The AFGC remains a lukewarm supporter, as is New Zealand’s Food and Grocery Council.

The AFGC continues to support the non-interpretive Daily Intake Guide System and has won a concession that it can continue to be used together with the star system. This breaches the principle, supported by public health advocates, that there should be a single system.

Where next for the Health Star Rating System?

Voluntary uptake

There are already signs parts of the food industry will voluntarily adopt the star system:

  • Trans-Tasman food company, Sanitarium, has announced it will use the star system on all its products.
  • Australian supermarket giant Woolworths is to put the stars on ‘thousands’ of home brand products.
  • Nestlé has announced that it will begin rolling out star ratings on products in Australia and New Zealand by the end of 2014.

Making health stars mandatory?

Australian ministers have stated that the Star system will become mandatory if uptake by the food industry is unsuccessful. In 2013 the Health Committee of the New Zealand Parliament also recommended this. Progress can be measured by the speed and extent the Stars appear on our supermarket shelves. It will be important to monitor progress, and to hold politicians to account over this commitment.

Product reformulation

For most consumers the healthiness of a food rates behind taste and price. For this reason, the greatest value of the star system is likely to be its potential to drive manufacturers to improve the nutrition profile of their products.

Ten half-star steps – from half a star to five stars – enable manufacturers to progressively increase ratings through gradual product reformulation. Already Sanitarium are thinking about reformulating Marmite because of its high salt content.

Educating consumers

Growing numbers of shoppers who understand and use the Stars will help push food manufacturers and retailers to implement the system further and faster.

Social marketing campaigns – funded by Government and continuing over a number of years – will be needed. The message is simple. If you are deciding between two similar products, one with stars and one without, buy the one with stars. And if you are deciding between products that both have stars, buy the one with the most stars.

References to health star rating system

Updated 7 October 2014