Australia’s packaging overhaul: will it work?

Traffic lights on the front of every product you buy, restrictions on how similar private label packaging can be to those of established brands, and a ban on cartoons in advertising foods to children.

If industry groups have their way, this will be where we find ourselves in 2012.

The private label debate has reached fever pitch in recent months, with Australian companies saying they are being squeezed out of the market by the major supermarkets, and the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) accusing supermarkets of deliberately copying other company’s packaging to confuse consumers.

From a packaging perspective, the decision to have similar bottles or designs is actually not a bad move, National President of the Australian Institute of Packaging, Pierre Pienaar told Food Magazine.

“I view it very differently from most others in terms of whether it’s been a deliberate ploy,” he said.

Pienaar explained that when manufacturing packaging products, there are ways for companies to make it cheaper and easier, by adapting to the sizes and materials already used.

“From a supply chain perspective, what they’ve done is absolutely the right thing, because if something is similar it doesn’t impact your secondary and tertiary packaging, it is all harmonised.”

“If you take a standard cereal box, for example, that is what we call ‘secondary’ packaging.

“In those brown corrugated shipping containers, there might be 500 or 600 on a pallet covered in stretch wrap and they can become what we call ‘tertiary’ if the packaging stays the same size.

“It means the consumer is not impacted because they are actually keeping costs down doing that.”

“In other words, it means there are no mew moulding costs, so then you and I as consumers, we win.

“I can’t comment on how its impacting brand leaders and their designs, but from a purely packaging perspective, it’s win-win.

Many supporters of the private-label debate often point towards the saving consumers are making under the increase in supermarkets’ own products, but as Minister for Innovation, Senator Kim Carr told ABC Radio yesterday, the short term savings might not mean long term benefits.

Despite many calling for private label products to be distinctly different in their look and feel, Pienaar explained that it is difficult to package products without sticking to what consumers are used to.

“From a design perspective, it is easy to come up with a different design.

“My question, from a design perspective and technological perspective is ‘why?’”

“You must also see it in the context of the consumer,” he told Food Magazine.

“If you change a vegemite bottle, the consumer won’t recognise it, same as if you have a private label spray bottle of an entirely different shape, they won’t know immediately what it is.

“We are brainwashed to shapes and colours and when we make significant change in those areas, we confuse consumers, and why would you want to do that?”

“I don’t believe we need to change the shapes, no, if that was a brand leaders’ design, he may have taken a patent out on it and after ten years it has expired and is an open market.

In response to calls from the AFGC for a Supermarket Ombudsman to be appointed to ensure supermarkets cannot deliberately copy the designs of established brands, Pienaar believes it would not be beneficial.

“We live in a competitive world, and a democratic society and at the end of the day, may the best man win.

“I don’t think we need to legislate,” he told Food Magazine.

The other packaging issue at the forefront of the Australian media currently, the traffic light labelling debate, is being slammed by some and welcomed with open arms by others.

The Gillard Government is expected to introduce legislation on traffic light labelling this week.

Luke Baylis, Founder and Managing Director of SumoSalad, has responded to the planned implementation of the Traffic Light Food Labelling system positively, saying the company would embrace the move but suggesting it might require some tweaking to really make it successful.

“SumoSalad supports the Federal Governments implementation of any initiative that highlights high amounts of fat and sugar in everyday foods such as the proposed Traffic Light Food Labelling system,” he said.

“We look forward to the Government outlining their plans next week.
“But we do urge key decision makers to look to overseas markets and to take note of their learnings.

"For the Australian system to be a success, our Traffic Light Food Labelling system needs to be standardised and made mandatory, not voluntary.

“If the Government can ensure that all food manufacturers and retailers operate the same labelling systems, consumers will not be left confused with mixed messages.”

Consumer watchdog CHOICE has been calling for mandatory front-of-pack traffic light labelling all year, but the AFGC believes it is too simplistic to work.

Baylis said that while the company supports the move, it must be able to sufficiently provide well-rounded information.

“The Traffic Light Food Labelling system is extremely simplistic, and at times can be very confusing,” he said.

“For example a fetta salad may get more red lights then a packet of chips despite cheese being a much healthier choice and sultanas would receive a red light on sugar that was comparable to a bar of chocolate.

‘While the Traffic Light Food Labelling offers an ‘at a glance’ rating on levels of fat, salt, and sugar on all packaging, it only reveals part of the picture – after all there is good and bad fat, natural sugar versus processed sugar, the list of confusion continues.

“We hope that the Federal Government also takes into account other things that affect consumers choice when deciding what to eat.

“Will the Traffic Light Food Labelling system also appear on adverts and Point Of Sale materials?

“In my opinion, the proposed Traffic Light system is a quick fix to a larger problem.

“At SumoSalad, we encourage our customers to embrace the simple rule of 50/25/25.

“In other words, ensure that your plate of food is made up of 50% vegetables and fruit, 25% protein and 25% carbohydrates.
“Following this basic guide will ensure a balanced diet.”

Pienaar had similar concerns about how the scheme would be implemented and whether consumers would respond positively to it.

“I think it is very clear way of communicating to the consumer,” he told Food Magazine.

“But does the consumer fully understand the traffic light and what they mean?”

“If that’s the case it ultimately a good thing.

But he believes package designers who have slammed the move, saying it will negatively impact their work and product sales won’t have to worry.

“Maybe initially [it will impact design] because it as an new concept, but if it [is introduced] in January, for example and we look at it again in three years time, we wont even be aware of it.”

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