The Minister of Food Safety has just released her Advisory Group on front of pack labelling’s final report.
The report is disappointing and its proposed labelling scheme will do little or nothing to improve our high rates of diet related diseases, which are highest in disadvantaged groups.
There is plenty of research which shows that to be effective with these groups, front of pack nutrition labelling needs to be simple, easy to understand, and equally importantly, and importantly, have saturation of the market so that the label is on the majority of food products and it becomes very familiar.
The very point of front of pack labelling is to help people make healthier food choices in order to improve public health outcomes.
But any scheme based on this report won’t achieve better health for the people who need it the most, despite some very good principles. The reason for this is pretty simple; from the outset, the Minister limited the scheme to being voluntary.
If you are a food manufacturer of a particular product and look at the criteria and find out that your product will get a zero for health (the lowest score possible proposed in the report), would you still say “yes! Sign me up, that will help sales”?
No, you wouldn’t.
So a voluntary scheme will just end up on the healthy foods, and consumers who don’t currently read the back of labels will still not know which foods they should think twice about before purchasing.
There is no public health reason why unhealthy foods shouldn’t be clearly labelled as such. The food industry wants to use front of pack labels as a marketing tool and are understandably opposed to anything on a label that could put people off buying their products.
Yet a meaningful shift in purchasing decisions is the very action that we need in order to improve public health outcomes. Which is why, to be effective to the groups who need it most, the scheme would have to be mandatory.
The last thing companies want to see is a red warning mark on their products, but let’s get real about the fact that some products are unhealthy for you. This doesn’t mean you can never eat these products but to be effective, we need clear, consistent messages about healthy and unhealthy food choices.
We have a serious crisis in public health; both obesity and type 2 diabetes are preventable diet related diseases. We need to be doing everything we can to make it easier for consumers to make healthy eating choices, and that will mean identifying that some food is not good for you.
But instead, what it looks like we will have is effectively just another glorified tick scheme, and we do not need another one of those.