New food standards that come into force in New Zealand in eight weeks’ time will clamp down on claims such as ‘92% fat-free’.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has become concerned that such claims mislead consumers into believing they are buying a low-fat product. “We are seeing a number of new food products being actively promoted as 93% fat-free or even 90% fat-free,” FSANZ managing director Ian Lindenmayer is quoted by the NZ Press Association as saying. “This in fact means that these products are 7% or 10% fat respectively, which is not a low fat product.”

The new code of practice on nutrient claims allows the fat-free claims to be applied only to products that are at least 97% fat-free. The new code comes into force on 20 December.

Manufacturers have long tapped the concern of many consumers to eat a healthy diet by promoting their food products in as healthy a light as possible. In New Zealand, as in many other countries, there has been something of a backlash – back in 1996 the Commerce Commission successfully prosecuted Pacific Dunlop Holdings for making misleading claims about its Plumrose Light Deli Ham. The ham was labelled ‘90% fat-free’, ‘light deli ham’ and ‘healthier eating’. The courts deemed the labelling misleading as it created a false impression that it was healthier than other hams.

The new law is intended to make sure that manufacturers stick not just to the letter of the law but also to its spirit. It is all too easy for an uninformed consumer to assume that 90% fat-free is a low-fat product, Lindenmayer believes. He said: “Used correctly, nutrition claims are a useful tool to enable shoppers to make informed choices but, if they are misused, consumers will no longer trust these claims”. The improper use of fat-free claims also puts those manufacturers who do strive for honest, straightforward labelling at a disadvantage.