The derision levelled at CHOICE’s food labelling research yesterday by Australian Food and Grocery Council CEO Kate Carnell comes as little surprise to us. In the UK, the food industry responded in much the same manner when the government developed the colour-coded traffic light system that CHOICE is supporting.

We’re used to these sorts of outbursts from industry to CHOICE’s work. We welcome them. They indicate that we’re on the right track and that the industry group in question would prefer we just went away so it can get on with the business of telling consumers what’s best for them.

While CHOICE is confident of the quality of the research and the results obtained, we can’t take all the credit. The research was conducted in collaboration with a number of respected public health groups led by the Cancer Council and including the Obesity Policy Coalition, Sydney University’s Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise and the Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia. It was guided by experts in nutrition and behavioural research; and will soon be subjected to the scrutiny of peer-review.

Ours is also the first publicly available research assessing how well Australian consumers can use different types of front-of-pack labels. It doesn’t just ask consumers which scheme they prefer. This is an important distinction.

The 800 consumers in our survey initially thought, as industry-sponsored research has found, that a percent daily intake (%DI) system would be the easier to use. But when we asked consumers to choose healthier foods using both the traffic light and %DI labelling systems, the results were very different — 81% of consumers correctly chose the healthier foods using the traffic light system while only 64% of consumers made the correct choice using the monochrome %DI scheme already on packs.

It’s understandable that the industry would want to defend a scheme it has already invested in. Unlike food manufacturers, who might suffer if consumers buy fewer unhealthy foods with lots of red traffic lights, none of the public health and consumer organisations involved in this research have a financial interest in pushing a particular scheme.

Should traffic light labelling be introduced it would complement, not replace additional back-of-pack information and government healthy eating advice. So Australians will still be taught the benefits fruit and vegetables and that an apple is a healthier choice than a packet of lollies.

Traffic lights provide spin-proof “at a glance” information to help shoppers quickly compare products which may appear identical or tout persuasive health claims. While the industry says that traffic lights are too simplistic, simple colour-coding is in fact its greatest virtue.

When Woolworths, Coles, Franklins and Aldi jumped aboard the %DI juggernaut yesterday it only illustrated why independent Australian consumer research is vital. Manufacturers might already be putting % DI information on food labels but that doesn’t mean it’s the best system for consumers.

That’s why later this month the Food Regulation Ministerial Council will consider all possible front-of-pack labelling systems — including traffic lights and %DI.

If governments want food labels that genuinely help Australians to make healthy choices they should look to the system that helps the greatest number of consumers, not the system that causes least offence to the food industry.

Peter Fray

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