The release yesterday of survey results by a coalition of vocal advocacy groups, as explained yesterday by Bridget Kelly from the Cancer Council — backed up by yet another poorly explained CHOICE survey — showing that consumers favour traffic light food labelling over the existing Daily Intake Guide labelling system is wide of the mark.

We too can throw around fancy research to make our case, like the fact that two in three Australian consumers surveyed by Newspoll say that they believe that the Daily Intake Guide is easy to read and understand and that more than one in three Australian consumers surveyed have used the Daily Intake Guide to make a purchasing decision.

Similarly, a study by the European Food Information Council also found that consumers had a strong understanding of the daily intake system, with 89% being able to correctly interpret the labelling.

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Rather than boring your readers with fancy research numbers and statistics I want to address the issues at the core of the debate — the schemes themselves.

Daily Intake labelling currently appears on more than 800 products in Australia. The scheme is so successful that only yesterday the Australian National Retailers Association announced that the major retailer’s private label products will now for the first time also display Daily Intake labelling.

For CHOICE and its coalition partners to say this is all just a big conspiracy from the food manufacturers to get their own labelling system in place is nonsense. The retailers Coles, Woolworths and Franklins could have chosen any consumer friendly labelling scheme they wanted for their private label products, including traffic lights, but they didn’t, they chose Daily Intake because it is the most comprehensive system and scheme most suited to assisting consumers to manage their diet. As a result of the retailers’ decision to come on board with the scheme, the labelling will soon appear on more 1300 products (and continue to increase over the next two years).

In stark contrast to this traffic light labelling appears on zero products.

Why? Because traffic light labelling is an over simplistic approach to the very important issue of food labelling; traffic light labelling is so simple that it has the potential to actually mislead the same consumers that CHOICE purports to represent into thinking that a number of healthy and occasional foods (CHOICE would call them unhealthy) are identical in nature when it is not the case.

Take this example. If applied to a serving of lollies and a serving of dried sultanas traffic light labelling indicates to consumers that there is no nutritional difference between these foods, even though the Daily Intake system shows that the serve of lollies contains double the amount of energy and sugar. This is not an isolated example.

We are told to use margarine instead of butter, olive oil instead of vegetable oil, eat low fat cheese instead of full fat cheese… the list goes on. The point I am trying to get at is that under the traffic light labelling system all of these examples show up as identical, where as under the Daily Intake Guide system — the system already being displayed on 800 products — consumers are able to distinguish the fact that full fat cheese has 50% more saturated fat than light cheese, amongst other things.

More examples? Traffic light labelling would render a number of pieces of fruit and vegetables a no go zone. Avocados for example would be a big red light due to their fat content; however, as any nutritionist will tell you, avocados contain good fat, not bad saturated fats. Daily Intake labelling highlights this difference, traffic lights doesn’t.

Traffic light labelling does not encourage eating to individual needs and undermines the age old wisdom of variety, moderation and balance. The system is based on 100g portions of food and not on the amounts that people actually eat. Vegemite an Australian icon, according to the traffic light system it gets a big red light for salt content. That is fine, it is high in salt compared to other foods, but who uses 100 grams of it at a time? Alternatively the Daily Intake scheme takes a more measured approach — the label tells consumers in a simple way that vegemite contains 8 per cent of their daily salt requirements, and 0.5 per cent of their total daily energy requirement…Once again, the list goes on.

Ultimately the Australian food and beverage industry hasn’t just been talking about giving consumers a front of pack labelling system that better helps them manage their nutritional requirements – we’re doing it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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