Consumers lose if industry can discredit food labelling scheme

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2008, 12:00am

The industry campaign opposing food-labelling amendments that offered much-needed public protection shows why these changes are needed.

The industry is protecting its most profitable products; health and nutrition claims on products increase sales, attracting premium pricing. But a 'lower-fat' product containing 45 per cent fat compared to the regular 50 per cent variety may have more added sugars and calories than the regular variety. A 'calcium-enriched' product may contain less calcium than other ordinary brands, but be more expensive. The United States' recommended daily allowance (RDA) for sodium is 2,400mg, the UK's 1,600mg. An RDA-labelled US product with 1,000mg sodium provides 42 per cent RDA; a UK product with 800mg, 20 per cent less sodium, provides 50 per cent RDA. Which looks better? How many products also list the national nutrient RDA levels?

Laborious cross-checking of labels does not guarantee shoppers finding out nutrient details, but the amendments would. Now the industry has offered to post this information on its websites instead of labels. How convenient while shopping. Health claims on the front of packages mean people are less likely to read nutritional details on the back. The industry knows this and prefers to keep shopping comparisons difficult.

Signatories of industry petitions were misled by deliberately scary publicity. This is what they should have said: organic foods are unaffected ('organic' is not a nutritional claim); 'ethnic' foods are unaffected (few make nutrient claims); most existing labelled products, even small-volume ones, will be unaffected, unless they make unsubstantiated health claims. Finally, the amendments only come into effect in 2010; not May 2008 as the industry cynically proclaimed.

The industry has levered extensive concessions to continue business as usual. For once, public health, not private profit, was to be protected. By spooking shoppers, vested interests again have conspired to defeat all-too-rare protection. Transparency and the consumer are the losers.

Richard Fielding, professor, school of public health, Hong Kong University