Continuing the thread of the previous post – which examined the potential for conflict between public health and commercial imperatives –  Sydney lawyer Professor Roger Magnusson has been investigating the merits of competing proposals for food labelling reform.

Magnusson, of the Sydney Law School at the University of Sydney, has provided the account below for Croakey readers, based on an article just  published in BMC Public Health (“The Case of Front-of-Pack Food Labelling in Australia”).

He has also provided the photographs at the bottom of the post which make it abundantly clear why the manufacturers of products like Coco Pops and Nutri-Grain might fight tooth and nail against traffic light labelling of foods.

Roger Magnusson writes:

In October 2009, COAG and the Australia New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council announced an independent review of food labelling law and policy, to be chaired by former Health Minister Dr Neal Blewett AC.

The panel is due to submit their final report to Ministerial Council in December.

One of the most hotly contested issues the review will consider is front-of-pack food labelling.

Clear, unambiguous labelling of the nutritional content of pre-packaged foods and ofstandardized food items sold in chain restaurants is consistent with the prevailing philosophy of ‘personal responsibility’. An interpretive, front-of-pack labelling scheme has the capacity to encourage healthier patterns of eating, and to be a catalyst for improvements in the nutritional quality of food products through re-formulation.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council argues that front-of-pack food labelling should take the form of its own, voluntary scheme, called Daily Intake Labelling.

Daily Intake Labelling was launched in November 2006 (one month after front-of-pack food labelling reached the agenda of the ANZ Food Regulation Ministerial Council).  It is backed by Woolworths, Coles, Franklins, the Australian Beverages Council and the Confectionary Manufacturers of Australia, and is currently used by around 180 brands.

Daily Intake Labelling indicates the percentage of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars and sodium per serve of the food in a thumbnail, monochrome format.  The serving size is chosen by each manufacturer and may vary between like products.

In Australia, research conducted by a coalition of Australian organizations including CHOICE and the Cancer Council, support the conclusion that overall, Traffic Lights are the most successful model for helping consumers to identify the foods that contribute to a healthier diet. In the latter case, a survey of 790 adults in New South Wales found that consumers using traffic light labelling were “five times more likely to correctly identify the healthier food products, compared to the Monochrome %DI [percentage of daily intake] system”.

There are two critical differences between Daily Intake Labelling and Traffic Light Labelling.

Firstly, Daily Intake Labelling is more complex than Traffic Lights because the former requires comparison across seven categories.  It also assumes that consumers measure out and limit themselves to the recommended serving.  This is unrealistic: when did you last measure out 30 grams of cereal at breakfast?

Furthermore, in order to use Daily Intake Labelling as an effective aid to a healthier diet, consumers must compare nutrients from different serving sizes of the similar products the consumer is choosing between, since serving sizes vary and are the responsibility of each manufacturer.

Further, consumers must keep a tally of the foods consumed during the day in order not to over-consume “negative” nutrients such as fat, and in order to achieve daily targets for “positive” nutrients such as fibre.  They must also consider how their individual daily intake needs compare with those of an average adult male.

Secondly, unlike Traffic Light Labelling, Daily Intake Labelling is agnostic about the quality of the nutrition of a product.  This explains why the Sanitarium Health Food Company has not signed on to Daily Intake Labelling, stating that: “The % daily intake value only provides information about the quantity of nutrients not the quality of nutrition”.

Traffic Light Labelling is interpretive and judgmental.  It helps consumers to make healthier choices by taking a position on the nutritional content of the product.  It identifies the foods you should avoid or eat sparingly!

It is this judgmental quality of Traffic Light Labelling, together with its relative simplicity, that makes it more helpful for making decisions in real-time, in the aisles of supermarkets and corner stores.

With certain refinements, the interpretive function of Traffic Light Labels can be further enhanced in ways that respond to common criticisms.  For example, as recommended by the UK Food Standards Agency, red lights can be reserved for added sugars, together with clarifying statements such as “This product contains naturally occurring sugars”.  This relatively simple variation would enable consumers to distinguish “between cereals which are high in added sugars, and those high in sugars due to high fruit content”.

It may also make sense to vary the cut-off points for certain foods such as cheese, which is naturally high in fat, and where the Traffic Lights would otherwise fail to distinguish between full fat and reduced fat variants (both would attract a red light).

Or, alternatively, the labelling scheme could rather simply add the clarifying statement that “Cheese is naturally high in fat”.

To the extent that Traffic Light Labelling has the capacity to assist consumers to moderate their consumption of red-flagged foods, it also has the capacity to interfere with the revenues of food manufacturers and retailers.

This may explain some of the antipathy of the AFGC to Traffic Lights, and why it has been vigorously promoting its non-interpretive alternative – Daily Intake Labelling.

It is worth emphasising, however, that the possible benefits of Traffic Light Labelling are not only mediated through their impact on the purchasing behaviour of consumers, but through their capacity to encourage “food manufacturers to change the food supply through product reformulation and development to meet nutrient criteria levels”.

Daily Intake Labelling is not likely to exert this kind of pressure on food manufacturers.

Traffic Light Labelling first originated in the United Kingdom, where it has been supported by at least twenty public health organisations.

On 22 June 2010, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) issued a report which included a call for Traffic Light Labelling to become the national standard.  The Food and Drink Federation issued a news article on the same day, attacking NICE and claiming that 93 manufacturers and retailers have now embraced front-of-pack labeling based on Guideline Daily Amounts.  Sound familiar?

Food industry resistance to an interpretive food labelling scheme is an important test for government, and a case study of how self-interest prompts industry to promote weaker, voluntary schemes that pre-empt and undermine progressive public health regulation.

It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.