Representatives from state federal and New Zealand governments will meet today to discuss the controversial traffic light nutrition labels.
After initial expectations that the Gillard government would approve the scheme, which would force manufacturers to display a red, amber or green lights for sugar, fat and salt content on the front of packs, it released a statement on Wednesday revealing it does not support the measure.
The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) was against the scheme from the beginning, saying it was too simplistic to work and instead wants to focus on improving the Daily Intake Guides on the back of packets.
Amy Cowper, a senior lawyer with Sydney based firm Truman Hoyle, agrees the scheme is not likely to be successful.
“I do think it’s too simplistic,” she told Food Magazine.
“I think it can work, in the UK they’ve seen it works to come extent but I agree with the federal government’s decision that it is too simplistic.
“We’re putting these labels on but people should be making their own decisions about what they’re eating, we’re creating a nanny state by putting such implicit things on the labels.”
If the federal government sticks to its decision not to support traffic light labelling, it will be positive for manufacturers, Cowper explains.
I think it’s fantastic for manufacturers because when you have red light appearing on a product, it indicates it is high in fat or salt and many would see that and think “oh, I can’t buy that,” so it will turn consumers off.
“I think its great for manufacturers that the federal government don’t want a front-of-pack system because it is damaging to products that are high in fat like cheese which are part of a balanced diet.
“But the red would turn people off and that’s not a good solution.
“A major problem with [traffic light labeling] would be the red tape and having to comply with information systems too.
“It would be hard for all manufacturers to comply straight away and then there are additional costs for the business.”
While the Gillard government announced their stance already, it could change its position throughout discussions, or separate states and territories could make their own rules, which would still mean additional work and costs for manufacturers.
“I think states and territories can make their own laws anyway so even if don’t agree with the federal government’s decision, New South Wales could decide to mandate this in the state.
“If all states and territories agreed then in terms of implementing it, it will go to Senate and if it’s approved by the Senate it will be made law and once its made law, I’m not sure how long if at all they would give businesses time to conform.
Whether the traffic light labeling is introduced, or more detailed Daily Intake Guides are brought in, manufactures will require some time to gather and declare the information needed.
“With the mandatory labeling on alcohol warning pregnant women against alcohol, they’ve been given two years,” she explained.
“They might take same approach with other labels.
“Once they’ve implemented laws they generally give time to make changes because it means they might have to get legal advice get information about what’s in products.
“One proposal was that wherever oil or fat or sugar is added you have to disclose that, for example, palm oil, but it might be that a manufacturer doesn’t know what types of oils are in their product.
“Palm oil is one that has more attention because there are animal rights groups that urge people not to eat palm oil because it’s derived from palm oil trees and a lot of them are from Asian areas occupied by orangutans so by doing forest clearing, it’s damaging their habitat.
“This is act a win for animal rights groups, because if the federal government makes them disclose whether palm oil is in a product, it would almost certainly turn people off buying that.
Trade marks in packaging expert and lawyer Sharon Givoni and Cowper both agree that if more detailed ingredients labels are introduced, it would have to be include education for consumer, because many don’t understand which fats, oils and sugars are good or bad.
“It would have to be done very carefully and supported with a good education overseen by government or consumer-focused body,” Givoni told Food Magazine.
“I think education might be required for a lot of consumers, who don’t know what trans fats are, for example,” Cowper said.
“A lot of people re conscious about what they’re eating so if they see trans fat on a label they might not buy it.”
But Givoni told Food Magazine the issues surrounding suggestions of better labeling and information are more complicated than simply deciding how to label food.
“A lot of our food is dead food, because it so overcooked, is stored so long and has so many preservatives,” she said.
“The irony is that plenty of people are undernourished but still overweight.
“At end of the day there’s a much bigger global issue that comes down to education campaigns.
“It’s a very complicated issue because consumers have their own habits and don’t necessarily want to change them.
“These schemes will only work if people are educated, and the people who want the information might already be educated and others wont care and will still buy the products anyway.”
Givoni suggests that manufacturers should also be encouraged to provide smaller portion sizes, as they continue to increase the amount of food a person feels is appropriate to consume.
The federal government’s decision is expected to be known next week, but Cowper believes we already know what it will be.
“Unless strong rejection from New Zealand, I wouldn’t see them changing,” she said.