Katherine Rich: Traffic labelling the lazy option


Last month in FMCG magazine, Trina Snow of Nargon wrote an excellent piece on the Council of Australian Government’s labelling review which is currently underway. 

The review is an ambitious piece of work which endeavours to seek some clarity on what the best methods of front-of-pack labelling might be.

I hope the panel members aren’t regretting their agreement to be part of the project, because after 6000 preliminary submissions followed by the thousands of additional substantive ones submitted in May, it would be understandable if they developed a bout of front-of-pack labelling ‘fatigue’.

It will be interesting to see what conclusions are drawn and how the panel draws together views which seem as diverse as chalk and cheese if the public consultation meeting held in Wellington is anything to go by. 

The Food and Grocery Council and our Australian sister organisation the AFGC have both made substantial submissions, which we are confident reflect a strong and practical approach to labelling based on our members’ experience of developing and marketing products.

It’s likely that our submissions will contrast dramatically with other submissions from public health activists and community groups who demand a level of detail of information that’s simply not possible to put it all on a limited-sized square.

As readers will be aware amongst the public health fraternity ‘traffic light’ labels are de rigueur at present. For some they are the silver bullet solution to New Zealand’s obesity problem. Colouring product labels green, orange and red to communicate how healthy a food is and how often it should be eaten is deceptively simple, but there are some disturbing flaws. The problem is that for many people red means ‘stop’. Reputable European research found that many people thought a red light meant a food was best avoided altogether instead of being eaten occasionally.

Just as pigging out on green labelled foods won’t lead to a balanced diet, neither will avoiding all red labelled products. Milk, cheese, honey, raisins would all most likely attract red labels, but each of these foods is important to a balanced diet.

The support of traffic light labels is lazy thinking which tends to be supported by lazy research.

Here’s one example. The study I refer to was a major one which included over 17,000 shoppers both in-store and at home. Contrast this huge and diverse sample of shoppers with the recently publicised New Zealand study promoted by academics of Otago and Massey Universities as the latest evidence to support traffic light labelling for food.

The work concluded that parents found that shopping in supermarkets with children was distracting (no kidding) and that parents didn’t always have time to read labels (welcome to parenthood!). But it’s not the conclusions, but the research design I take issue with. The study, heralded as another reason for the Government to look at traffic light labelling, interviewed only 15 people, probably from Palmerston North. Within the FMCG sector we are keen to debate the facts and new labelling thinking, but it becomes rather tiresome when such weak pieces of work are held up as conclusive findings and reported with headlines beginning “new research says...” 

At best speaking to 15 people constitutes a focus group, at worst it’s really no more conclusive than a fireside chat with a few random people, so academics should be careful in the way they present such work.

There are some serious decisions to be made over the next year, which will have a huge impact on the way food products are labelled and presented. Our sector needs to demand that decisions are based on fact, practicality and decent academic work. We look forward to the results of the Food Labelling Review.