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Food packaging - who do you trust to tell the truth on the label?

Friday 9 December, 2011 by Shona

Who would you trust to decide what nutrition information goes on packaged food - public health experts or food industry marketing execs?

Unfortunately there is little overlap between the two sides - one is motivated to give people tools to make an informed decision about the food they buy; the other has products to sell.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is: whose advice will government follow?

Today state health ministers will vote on the recommendations of an independent panel of experts regarding the future of labelling here in Australia.

The recommendations of the Labelling Logic report - and the associated issues - are broad and ranging. From whether to include warnings on alcohol products for pregnant women, to finding a clear system to display key nutritional information on packaged food; all have been hotly debated both publicly and behind closed doors since the report was released in January this year.

The Obesity Policy Coalition has been a strong advocate of one of the recommendations in the report - to implement a system of traffic light labelling on packaged foods. The reason being that traffic light labelling provides at a glance, simple information about the content of key nutrients in packaged food. It also has high consumer acceptance - over 80,000 Australians have downloaded the OPC's traffic light mobile app - and 87% of consumers said they would use traffic lights to help them shop more healthily.

Catherine King MP, who chairs the Ministerial Council responsible for responding to the report, went public last week with her decision to reject traffic light labelling on food. In an interview on Radio National's The National Interest, Ms King aggressively defended her decision and effectively sang from a hymn sheet that could have been composed by the food industry's chief lobbyist and mouthpiece, Kate Carnell.

It does beg the question - why engage a panel of experts to carry out a review of all the evidence, and then reject the recommendations out of hand or dilute them beyond recognition?

On the surface it doesn't make sense, yet dig just a little deeper and it becomes all too clear who is driving the agenda when government makes such confounding decisions.

The food industry has been lobbying hard to discredit traffic light labelling - in Europe industry spent a reported one billion Euro keeping traffic lights off packs. Since former Federal health minister Dr Neal Blewett presented the expert recommendations early this year, the Australian food industry has gone to great lengths to deride a system that would expose shonky marketing claims and force food manufacturers to declare the less-than-healthy attributes of their products.

At the helm, Kate Carnell's shrill response has been to champion industry's own approach to food labelling - the Percentage Daily Intake Guide - a system so complex it leaves anyone without savant maths abilities utterly bamboozled. Of course an opaque approach is favoured by industry - it's simply not in their interests for consumers to understand the true nutritional profile of the many too-good-to-be-true products which are 99% fat-free but laden with salt and sugar.

The outcome of today's meeting will have a profound impact on the future ability of ordinary Australians to make an informed choice about the products they buy. Thankfully Catherine King has just one vote of a possible eight. The onus is therefore on state and territory health ministers to show true leadership, by standing up to industry and putting the health of voters before big food profits and propaganda.



Traffic light app



Well done Shona!

From: Johnny, 15/04/2013

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