Dr Trevor Beard, Honorary Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Institute at the University of Tasmania, writes:

“Many public health advocates are lobbying for a traffic light system to make it easier for the public to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods. Foods would be labelled with a red, green or amber light for each of the four nutrients known to be harmful in excess (fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt).

However, there is a risk to this approach. It is adamantly opposed by the food industry and, if we invest all our eggs in this basket, we may lose them all.

When the UK introduced voluntary traffic light food labels in 2005, a major manufacturer responded rapidly by inventing an elaborate substitute front-of-pack label with no red lights, and the food industry has vigorously promoted it in Europe and Australia.

Now that the traffic light revolt has reached Australia, the industry is asking the government to settle a win-lose contest between the two main candidates for an FOP (Front-of-Pack) label:

• the evidence-based traffic light label;

• the food industry’s substitute, known in Australia as the %DI (Percentage Daily Intake).

The food industry would think a win-lose contest was worth risking because this huge industry is a major employer of voters, a massive contributor to the national economy, and would be making the attractive offer of a front of pack label already in wide use and available at no cost to the government.

We would be naïve if the industry’s investment of millions of dollars in a substitute FOP label didn’t tell us something.

You can read more about this here.

But there is no need for a contest between a winner and a loser.  A fairer arrangement to all concerned is a win-win approach giving the food industry amber traffic lights that advertise healthier products, like the Heart Foundation “Tick”—which is good for business—but free of charge (the “Tick” costs a fair-sized fee).

Better still, foods that are even healthier—good enough for doctors to order them for medical treatment—will get green lights, and the free advertisement they have always deserved.  Amber and green traffic light labelling could be made mandatory immediately and red light labelling could go on the back burner as a voluntary option for a decade.

This would bring big wins to the food industry:

  • no risk of red lights now
  • a whole decade to reformulate unhealthy foods to the standard of the Heart Foundation “Tick” (perhaps longer by negotiation)
  • amber lights straight away without paying a fee
  • green lights for doctors to prescribe and supermarkets to dispense the healthiest foods of all

And there would be big wins for everybody else:

  • Australian consumers—clear labels at last, needing no explanation
  • Australian medicine and public health—a breakthrough—a new way to improve the diet that made the patient sick
  • the government—no political dilemma now, and the genuine prospect of a lower health budget

Carbon dating of the fossil record provides evidence that modern humans with faces and bodies just like ours have been on this planet for about 40 thousand years and spent the next 30 thousand years eating what they liked (just like the contemporary wildlife) with no need for traffic light food labels.  We are genetically adapted to that food.

Trouble began when the agricultural revolution started giving us domestic cattle that were captive and idle, giving us meat with excess total fat and saturated fat, and later new technology gave us salt and refined sugar.  Processed foods became overloaded with four nutrients known to be harmful in excess, and the industrial revolution made them cheap and abundant.

That was only about 300 years ago (12 human generations, too few for genetic adaptation).  The world needs a bold experiment like traffic lights, and I count it a privilege to be living in the country that may be the pioneer.

The industry’s substitute FOP label has been the only serious sign of revolt by an industry with a long history of willing collaboration.

The food industry recognises the problem and knows as well as we do that there is a desperate need for collaboration and win-win negotiation, with a clearly defined common goal for public health and food production.”