To be of any real use to consumers, nutritional labels must be legible

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 4:35am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 5:56am

It took Hong Kong seven years to get a law on nutritional labelling of packaged foods passed by the legislature and finally introduced in 2010 - about 10 years behind other developed countries. As a result, every packet now carries the "1+7" label, specifying the food's calorific value plus the levels of seven core nutrients. Claims such as "low salt" and "high in fibre" can be made only if certain requirements are met. At least we trust this is the case, because nearly two-thirds of labels assessed by the Consumer Council in a joint study with the Centre for Food Safety failed to meet government standards intended to make them legible. The labelling regime is therefore still a work in progress.

For example, the food safety centre issued guidelines for readability of labels a little over a year ago, long after labelling was introduced. Out of 100 samples purchased in August and September last year, the print size in 51 was smaller than the minimum standard set out in the guidelines.

The Consumer Council said this had the effect of frustrating the government's intent of introducing labelling to help consumers make informed choices for the sake of their health. Other reading difficulties included poor colour contrast and low print quality.

To be sure, the guidelines are not legally binding. But they should be sufficient in themselves to ensure compliance with basic commonsense. Manufacturers and distributors should not need to be legally bound to make labels readable.

A co-operative effort between the trade, food-safety and health authorities is preferable. In that spirit the food centre's principal medical officer for risk assessment, Dr Samuel Yeung Tze-kiu, called for the trade to be given more time to adapt to the guidelines and urged compliance. Failing that, he did not rule out legislating the guidelines.

That said, the law is positive for producer responsibility and has helped people eat more healthily, even if most do not look closely at the labels. But if nutritional labelling is now to be seen as a basic consumer right, it needs to be seen clearly.