Fine print on nutrition too fine to read

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2012, 12:00am

Hong Kong shoppers may need magnifying glasses to read the tiny print on nutrition labels on prepackaged food, according to a consumer watchdog which has found tags can be as small as a 10 cent coin.

In a study, the Consumer Council collected dozens of prepackaged food items from supermarkets and bakeries.

In many cases, it said yesterday, the nutrition labels were hardly legible, with English capital letters and Chinese characters on some only one millimetre high.

'The size of a yogurt's nutrition label is smaller than a 10 cent coin,' said Professor Ron Hui Shu-yuen of the council. [The label is so small that] it makes no difference whether it is on the product or not.'

In other cases, the colour of the type or the background made the labels difficult to read. White characters were found on transparent plastic bags containing white bread and biscuits. Hui said local labels added to the packaging of imported products were also commonly of poor print quality.

A nutrition labelling law that came into effect in July 2010 requires products to carry labels indicating their nutritional value under a '1+7' format. That is, food labels must specify the product's energy content plus the levels of seven core substances - protein, saturated fats, trans-fats, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. All need to be 'legibly marked'.

However, the law contains no definition of 'legible'.

In contrast, the United States and the European Union have set out clear regulations on font size, colour contrast and line spacing on nutrition labels.

To enhance consumer protection, Hong Kong should incorporate a definition of 'legible labels' in its legislation, Hui said.

A spokesman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said the government had prepared draft guidelines for the trade on the preparation of legible food labels which outlined acceptable font sizes and label formats. A public consultation on the draft guidelines ended last month and a final version will be released this April.

However, the guidelines are voluntary and unenforceable.

The Consumer Council also yesterday reminded the public to read labels on dehumidifiers carefully.

The machines generally carry two labels. One is an energy efficiency label, required by the government, showing their capacity for cooling and dehumidifying at 26 degrees Celsius and a relative humidity of 60 per cent. Another label, usually larger, shows their capacity at conditions of 30 degrees Celsius and 80 per cent relative humidity.

The more severe conditions may not accurately reflect daily life, with households likely to operate a dehumidifier with windows closed, the watchdog said, and the labels thus gave consumers an exaggerated sense of an appliance's effectiveness.

Among 12 dehumidifiers tested, the capacities of Hitachi, Whirlpool and Philco dehumidifiers proved to be lower than claimed on the energy efficiency label.

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