Label law may be sticking point for health food

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

Low-fat. Zero trans-fat. Organic. Sugar-free. High-fibre. Cholesterol-free. They're all good for you, but many foods labelled that way could vanish from shop shelves in Hong Kong if proposed new rules come into force.

That's because producers who make claims about a food's nutritional merits will also have to include data on a label to back up the claims. Less healthy foods, which carry no such claims, will have an easier time.

Gone, too, could be your favourite French cheese, Italian sausage, English Christmas pudding or American breakfast cereal, if the producers, or the shops selling them, do not consider it worth the cost of relabelling each item to comply with the rules.

A retail source said relabelling by a shop would add 10 per cent to a product's costs.

Now diplomats from at least a dozen consulates in the city have got together to try to stop thousands of products being removed from sale. They are working behind the scene to have the rules redrafted.

Under a proposal presented to the Legislative Council in December, all prepacked food must carry a label showing its energy value and how much fat, saturated fat, trans-fat, sodium, protein and carbohydrates, including sugar, it contains, as well as facts to back nutritional claims.

Items of which 30,000 or fewer a year are sold are exempt unless they carry nutritional claims.

Jack Maisano, president of the American Chamber of Commerce, said: 'We are concerned that the regulation as it is now proposed would result in fewer products that our members now enjoy from the United States and from elsewhere [being sold].

'As Hong Kong strives to be a world city and to maintain a cosmopolitan lifestyle, it seems to be going in the wrong direction. Products for minority groups, whether religious, ethnic or seasonal, may be the ones sold in small quantities which are most at risk.'

Diplomatic sources suggested that nutritional claims be allowed on small-volume products so long as they are in compliance with the laws of the country of origin.

The US, the mainland and Australia are among the top five exporters of pre-packed goods to Hong Kong. France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam could also be hard hit by the labelling system.

The Australian consulate declined to comment, saying policy officers were still working closely with Hong Kong government officials on the issue.

A source said the Japanese consulate was working with other consulates on the issue.

'Japanese factories in Hong Kong also are very worried because they have to comply,' the source said.

A spokeswoman for the Food and Health Bureau said: 'Regulating misleading or false claims is one of the most important objectives in introducing a nutrition labelling scheme.'