Voluntary salt and sugar labels on food products in Hong Kong are a good start on the path to healthy eating
Bernard Chan says the new voluntary labelling scheme on the salt and sugar content of packaged food and drink is the first step towards the long-term goal of building a healthier society, one that will only be achieved with the education of children
It has been just over three years since the Food and Health Bureau set up the Committee on Reduction of Salt and Sugar in Food. As chairperson, I was pleased to present a number of recommendations to the government in the second half of 2016.
After consulting local and international experts, it was clear to us that the key to convincing the community to adopt healthier diets is long-term education. It literally needs to start in kindergarten.
We also found that many consumers – especially among the middle-aged and older generations – wanted better information on which foods are healthier. Such information could also help raise awareness among the younger people who maybe do not think much about things like salt and sugar levels.
Our recommendations therefore included ideas to encourage the catering sector to offer healthier menu options. We also proposed better labelling for packaged foods.
These labels were officially rolled out last week. There will be eye-catching logos for manufacturers to place on packaging – to identify “no salt”, “no sugar” and “low salt” and “low sugar” products (as defined by government guidelines).
The labelling system is probably the most high-profile part of our efforts, and we knew the public and media might be disappointed that it did not go further.
The main criticism is that the labels will be voluntary, and on a limited range of items to start with.
It is important to remember that this information is already a statutory requirement on standard food labels on most packaged food. But it is probably in small print, and you need to consider – for example – milligrams of sodium per 100 grams of the food. The new logos give consumers an instant message on the front of the package.
The main reason it is voluntary is that the alternative is legislation. I was involved in the bill that led to the current food labelling system when I was a lawmaker, and I know it is very time-consuming. We either go ahead with this now, or it could take years.
Several manufacturers have already agreed to use the new logos on some 60 eligible products – including various drinks and snacks – and hopefully we should start seeing the new packaging soon. The government will encourage other manufacturers to adopt it.
Although the labels are voluntary, it will be an offence under existing laws to display them on products that are not eligible. I expect that the Consumer Council will also be ready to examine any suspected misuse of the labels – and continue looking at the dietary quality of food products in general.
Ideally, it will get to the stage where manufacturers will change the formula of their products to qualify to use the labels.
Some people are sceptical about whether this will work, and they ask why we in Hong Kong don’t get serious and use tougher laws and taxes to change the behaviour of consumers and/or the food industry.
Just this month, the UK is implementing a sugar tax to raise the price of sweet drinks. This is in response to childhood obesity, which has become a critical problem, and which confirms our committee’s belief that this issue needs to be tackled starting in kindergarten.
Supporters of the UK measures point out that the costs of heart disease, high blood pressure and other diseases justify such a tough approach. Critics say it could penalise the poor as people will just pay more for their sugar fix. Interestingly, it seems many manufacturers are already reducing sugar levels in drinks.
Should Hong Kong consider something along these lines?
Ultimately, the community as a whole needs to decide what to do next. Legislation would involve a lengthy debate about government intervention versus free markets.
For now, let’s see how our labelling and other ideas perform – and how well the UK-style approach works. If public opinion supports more action, we will find out.
By coincidence, we saw this basic question arise in a couple of issues in the news last week. One was an idea to ban ticket scalping at government-run sports and entertainment venues. The other was a plan for a cooling-off period to allow consumers to back out of long-term contracts for gyms and beauty salons.
If the public favours intervention with concert tickets or gym subscriptions, it could easily do so with healthy eating.
Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council