Australia is currently witnessing a similar debate to that seen in the UK and Europe over the use of traffic light colours or guideline daily amounts in front-of-pack nutritional labelling. The Australian food industry is hoping for a similar outcome. Ben Cooper reports.

The traffic lights versus GDA debate may have come to a pause in the UK and EU following the decision in the European Parliament in June and the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) final guidance on the issue but it is in full swing in Australia.

At the beginning of December, an expert panel undertaking a wide-ranging report on food labelling policy briefed Federal and state food ministers on its conclusions on front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling. 

The expert panel, chaired by former health minister Neal Blewett, is looking into a range of labelling issues around areas such as health claims, genetically modified food, country-of-origin and alcohol. Among the questions being addressed was whether policymakers should opt for colour coding in FOP labelling or a system based on guideline daily amounts (GDAs), referred to in Australia as Daily Intake Guides (DIGs).

During a consultation phase, industry groups put a strong case for DIGs while health groups supported a traffic lights system, the same pattern seen in the UK and Europe.

The Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), a group of Australian health organisations, said in its submission that traffic light labelling schemes “are easier to use and less confusing than non-interpretive schemes”. It added: “Evidence suggests that a traffic light scheme would assist consumers from all demographic groups to make healthier food choices.”

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The OPC submission pointed to a 2008 study of 790 Australian consumers’ attitudes and responses to FOP labelling which found that traffic light labelling was “significantly more effective in assisting consumers to select healthier food products” compared with other systems such as DIGs. It also found that traffic light labelling leads to more accurate assessments of nutrient levels and was easier and quicker to use than the other systems.

The idea that traffic lights are quicker for consumers to use than GDAs would seem intuitively logical but food manufacturers have contended that GDAs provide a more accurate and comprehensive nutritional picture for consumers, while traffic lights are something of a blunt instrument. 

Indeed, in its submission to the review the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), which represents manufacturers, said traffic lights were a “simplistic” approach to a complex problem. The AFGC said the traffic lights system was “ill-suited” to helping consumers construct healthy diets because, among other things, it failed to reflect the “nutritional wisdom” of variety, balance and moderation, implied that green-labelled foods can be consumed without restraint and “unscientifically” focused on individual foods, rather than the need to construct healthy diets. 

The AFGC said that its DIG system had been well received by consumers because of promotional activity explaining the system, and that research it commissioned from market researcher Newspoll in 2008 “confirmed awareness of the DIG scheme is high and being transferred into purchasing decisions”.

Although ministers have now been briefed on the Blewett panel conclusions, there is as yet no inkling of which way the panel has gone. However, campaigners are concerned that industry is putting undue pressure on policymakers to come down in favour of DIGs.

OPC conducted a survey of the 449 submissions to the review and found that 77% of the industry submissions opposed traffic lights while “traffic-light labelling was supported by the majority of health organisations and state and territory governments’ submissions as being a good approach to front of pack nutrition labelling”.

The arguments being rehearsed Down Under are all too familiar. In the UK and Europe a similar debate has been contested during the past few years, with food manufacturers and some retailers supporting GDAs and public health groups backing traffic lights. 

The final guidance of the FSA in the UK on the issue and the rejection of a traffic lights system by the European Parliament in June suggest the industry’s view has prevailed. But campaigners believe this has more to do with industry lobbying than weight of scientific evidence.  

“The food industry and specifically manufacturers just do not want it [traffic lights],” Christine Haigh, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, tells just-food. “I think what it comes down to is that the food industry don’t want to have red lights on their products and they are going to fight as hard as they can not to have to do that.”

In June, a report by the pressure group, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), suggested that the Confederation of food and drink industries of the EU (CIAA) had spent EUR1bn in campaigning against traffic lights.

Industry representatives rubbished this claim. A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) in the UK, which belongs to CIAA, said: “This figure is completely inaccurate,” suggesting it is more likely to be the cost of implementation of such a scheme. However, the spokesperson was not prepared to say how much had been spent. “Unfortunately we are unable to release a figure.” 

The FDF went on to defend industry lobbying. “EU food and drink manufacturers, like so many consumer groups, have a legitimate interest in following this piece of EU legislation and, like many other interest groups, we have made sure that European policy-makers (this includes MEPs) are kept abreast of our views.”

The progress of the debate in the UK suggests the industry has been extremely effective at putting its message across. The FSA conducted some of the most extensive research ever undertaken into this question and when it published the findings in 2009, it said the research suggested a system combining traffic light colours and percentage of Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) would provide the most useful guidance for consumers. That research was even cited by the OPC in its submission to the Blewett review. But by March 2010, following an extensive consultation period, the FSA had revised this view, backing a ‘flexible’ approach to labelling, where GDAs would be supported with either text or traffic lights. 

As it turned out, that was not only the FSA’s final guidance on FOP nutritional labelling but one of its final pronouncements on any matter of diet and nutrition. Indeed, campaigners would argue that the new government’s decision in the summer to take the FSA’s diet and health remit back under direct ministerial control makes such policymaking more susceptible to industry lobbying and strengthens industry’s hand. The government’s desire to involve industry in shaping food policy through its Public Health Responsibility Deal, announced recently as part of its health reforms, only serves to heighten such concerns.

So far the debate in Australia over FOP labelling has followed a very similar path to that seen in the UK. The policy reaction to the Blewett review findings will demonstrate whether the Australian food industry has been equally persuasive in putting its views across as its counterparts in the UK.