Katherine Rich: Work to be done on Australia's health star rating labelling system

The recent announcement that the Australian Government is to adopt what it calls a “health star rating” labelling system on packaged foods has caused something of a stir acrstar1oss the Tasman.

A Front of Pack Labelling (FoPL) system, designed to give consumers at-a-glance information about the food they are buying, has been an issue that trans-Tasman governments, by way of the joint Australian and New Zealand Ministers Food Regulation Forum, have been wrestling with for several years.

In late 2011, the forum agreed to the development of a system for Australia, with New Zealand deciding it would look at the issue separately, and negotiations started with the industry and consumer and public health groups.

Finally, on June 14 this year, following the forum’s latest meeting, the Australian Government said it will adopt the star rating system. New Zealand was not convinced and has opted to watch and wait. 

The device will consist of a scale of ½ a star to 5 stars, with ½ star increments, and a “slider” above the relevant star or ½ star with the corresponding number to highlight the rating of the food (apparently in case consumers are not capable of counting stars!). The more stars, the healthier the food. This is to be underpinned by a Nutrient Profiling Scoring System for saturated fat, sugars, and sodium, along with one piece of optional positive nutrient information relevant to the particular food (for example, calcium). There will also be an ‘energy’ icon, with the unit of measure in kilojoules.

The Australians have decided that the manufacturing industry’s participation will be voluntary, but only as long as there is a “consistent and widespread uptake” of the system. It will be evaluated after two years and if it’s found that voluntary implementation is not working then a mandatory approach will follow.

There’s no doubt that everyone in the food industry buys into idea that there should be more information on packs so shoppers can identify healthier choices and buy accordingly. But there is concern across the Tasman that the announcement was rushed through in the desire to get a political outcome before the Australian election in September.

The question being asked is: has good process been trampled over in the rush to put something, anything, in place. Because there are flaws in the star rating system, with some of the anomalies undermining the credibility of the whole system.

So what are the flaws?

First, the industry believes the star rating system will result in consumer confusion because the use of calculating the ratings based on the “per 100g”/“per serving” will lead to some crazy anomalies. Take a jar of Marmite or Vegemite as an example. Under the star system it will be required to have a “per 100g” rating on it and because of that will attract a lesser number of stars because of the amount of salt in that 100g, even though no one consumes anything like 100g of the breakfast spreads in one go. Fewer stars will be misleading to consumers and unfair to the product.

Secondly, there are problems with how the star system rates different products. For example, peas would get more stars than carrots, apples, and broccoli because peas have more fibre and protein than the others. Even foods that conventional wisdom suggests are healthier food choices, such as apples, won’t get five stars, while there are concerns that dairy products will be punished by such a star rating when dairy plays a vital part in a healthy diet.

Thirdly, the Australian Government is talking about using a big star logo but there remain the basic practicalities of getting a big logo on the side of a small pack – in many cases they simply will not fit. How this problem gets solved we will have to wait and see.

Finally, and talking of costs, the Australia food industry has calculated it will cost something like $200 million to implement the star rating system, in addition to complying with the new regulatory burden. At some point this cost will filter through to higher prices for consumers. Obviously the cost on this side of the Tasman would not reach those heights, but you can be sure it would be significant nonetheless. And that’s before anyone has even considered who pays to educate consumers on how to use the system effectively for healthy diet selection.

It’s clear that no one magical system exists, but what the Australians are doing has significant technical problems, and unless they are ironed out the implementation is likely to be anything but smooth.

Obviously, the food industry in New Zealand will be watching developments very closely, while continuing to engage on the issue with our Government, which has so far taken a far more pragmatic approach.

And as a final comment, we should not lose sight of the fact that there are limitations as to how much of what is printed on a label can sway someone’s purchasing and consumption decision. Will making this massive and costly change make a difference? The jury is out, but so far this trans-Tasman project has not uncovered any evidence to indicate that it will. Nevertheless, the industry is committed to improving available information so customers can make healthier choices – as long as that information is practical and clearly understood.