Labelling Logic: the review of food labelling law and policy

The Panel conducting the Independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy, commissioned by the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council, today formally presented its Final Report entitled Labelling Logic to the Hon Catherine King, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, as the Chair of that Ministerial Council. The Report has also been made publicly available on the Food Labelling Review website.

In officially presenting the Report, the Chair of the Review Panel, Dr Neal Blewett AC, said the Panel recognised that the food label is one of the most highly valued and competitively sought-after communication channels in the market place.

"The Review Panel has thoroughly examined the views and ideas submitted orally and in writing by a wide range of stakeholders, and sourced evidence from international experience, to produce what we believe is a set of robust recommendations designed to address the inquiry’s Terms of Reference," Dr Blewett said.

"The crux of the Review was to address the tensions between the competing interests that drive food labelling policy and to seek to resolve them. The 61 recommendations contained in the Report are designed to address the current ad hoc approach to food labelling and provide a clear path forward. The cornerstone of the recommendations in the Report is a Food Labelling Issues Hierarchy in descending order of food safety, preventative health, new technologies and consumer values issues.”

"This classification, which is essentially a risk hierarchy, should govern the initiation of regulatory action, the modes of intervention and where rules and oversight should lie. In addition the Panel recommends that a comprehensive Nutrition Policy be developed that includes a framework for the role of the food label. Once established, this Policy should inform the development or variation of labelling standards affecting public health," Dr Blewett said.

Within this framework, the Panel has made a wide range of specific recommendations to improve food labelling law and policy. These include:

• changes to the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), such as the inclusion of fibre content; the possible explicit inclusion of trans-fats; clarification of salt content; and the removal of the current mandatory ‘per serve’ column;
• a responsive regime for nutrition, health and related claims ranging from the use of simple words that may infer health implications, to high level health claims related to specific conditions;
• a number of codes of practice to enable consumers to readily identify additives, colourings and flavourings of agreed medical priority;
• the introduction of a multiple traffic light front-of-pack labelling system; this system is to be voluntary in the first instance, except where health claims are made;
• changes to the labelling requirements for alcohol;
• the provision of nutrition information on menus/menu boards in chain food service outlets; and
• a number of recommendations in relation to the labelling of genetically modified food.

"The effectiveness of the recommendations in practice will depend on the consumer’s ability to notice, read and comprehend the information provided," Dr Blewett said. "It is a fundamental principle that food labels be presented in a clear and comprehensible manner to enhance understanding across all levels of the population. The Panel recommends a prescriptive minimum font style and a minimum contrast level for all mandatory information, and the emboldening of warning and advisory statements and of allergens. The Panel would encourage government and industry to work together to establish guidelines for other presentational factors and to work towards a co-location of mandatory health information presented in a standardised fashion."

Dr Blewett said the Panel is fully conscious that food labelling requirements impose costs, of the need to justify regulatory burdens imposed on industry and of the need for transition measures to ease the introduction of change.

"The Panel’s approach has been one of responsive regulation, seeking to involve stakeholders in developing self-regulatory and co-regulatory measures, but recognising that more prescriptive modes of regulation are often appropriate."

Most importantly, the community must, as a general principle of good governance, feel confident that the food regulatory system, which is designed to protect its health and safety, operates effectively.  As such the Panel believes that once the case for food labelling requirements has been made, the required label elements must be monitored and enforced by the jurisdictions. 

"The Panel recommends that the current system can be strengthened by the establishment of a Food Labelling Bureau. The Bureau’s role would be to advise Australian and New Zealand ministers on all aspects of labelling policy, labelling education, research and the monitoring of compliance and enforcement," Dr Blewett said.  

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