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China food safety

Voluntary labels on salt, sugar the only way to get plan moving quickly in Hong Kong, food panel chief Bernard Chan says

The scheme, to be rolled out before the end of the year and which will cover about 100 products initially, would have taken years to go through Legco, he says 

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 6:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 5:25pm

With Hong Kong set to roll out “front of package” food labels on salt and sugar content, the head of a government advisory committee has defended the decision to make the scheme voluntary.

Bernard Chan said the scheme – which would cover just over 100 pre-packaged products for starters and was “readily understandable and nothing fancy” – would have taken years to pass through the legislature to make it mandatory. 

“If we go straight and make it mandatory there is going to be a lot of debate [at the Legislative Council]. Some will agree and some disagree, we will be arguing all the time. I guarantee you, it would be a few years from now [before a law passed],” he told the Post.

Chan, who chairs the Committee on Reduction of Salt and Sugar in Food, said the four labels would state “low sugar”, “no sugar”, “low salt” or “no salt” in black and white or colour versions. Many of the products were sauces. 

The committee advises Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee. 

Bernard Chan, who is also Executive Council convenor and a former legislator, admitted he was “embarrassed” that mandatory nutrition labels on barcoded products were so confusing and of such varied standards that he too found it difficult to assess whether certain goods were healthy.

The new system, to be rolled out before the end of the year, follows calls for the government to make nutrition labelling more user-friendly for a population that has become more health-conscious and is seeking clearer information.

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A member of working groups on front-of-packaging labelling and promotion under Chan’s committee, Dr Jimmy Louie Chun-yu, said he understood why the roll-out would only have about 100 food products compared with new app FoodSwitch HK’s 13,000 pre-packaged products.  

“Due to the nature of the front-of-package labelling scheme, which only highlights products with low/no salt or sugar, we certainly should not be expecting that all products could carry such a label,” Louie, assistant professor in food and nutritional sciences at the University of Hong Kong, said on Thursday.  

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“Through this initiative, it is hoped that the food manufacturers could be prompted to make changes to the formulation of their product such that they will eventually be eligible to carry this label.”

He said the scheme, although late, “is better than not coming at all”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged governments to consider a sugar tax on food served to children to reduce global obesity and a diabetes epidemic. WHO member states also agreed in 2016 to reduce the global population’s salt intake by a relative 30 per cent by 2025.

The four labels being introduced to Hong Kong “have been benchmarked according to the Department of Health’s standards of what is considered no sugar or no salt,” Chan said, adding that they would be “easy to read and easier to understand. We are not creating another fancy labelling system”.

The committee examined food labelling under Britain’s “traffic light system” and Australia’s star ratings for sugars, salt and nutrients.

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“But we think [our] labelling thing is a lot easier to start off with. We don’t even have to educate people on what it is,” Chan said on Wednesday night, adding that the health secretary had accepted the committee’s recommendations.

“We expect that before the end of this year some of these products can be out in the market because we already approved the labels. Everything is set.”

It could have been rolled out “today” were it not for the government taking into consideration that manufacturers and importers need to clear stock before using the new labels.

Authorities would also watch for fake labels on products, Chan said, warning that “mislabelling” was a criminal offence.

Chan’s sugar and salt committee was formed in March 2015 to help Hongkongers change their behaviour to prefer low, or no, sugar and salt to protect their health.

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Chan said it was embarrassing that as the then chairman of Legco’s bills committee on nutrition labelling, he finds the current labels “confusing”.

“Today even if I look at this nutrition label I can’t even tell you straight away how nutritious these products are because it is confusing,” he said. 

“Some are per serving, different measures and so on. It is very confusing for consumers to read. But of course if you spend time and you do all the maths it is actually OK. But most consumers don’t want to go the distance.”

He also welcomed other tools, including apps to make it easier for consumers to understand food content, but would not endorse any one product. 

FoodSwitch HK, co-developed by HKU and the George Institute for Global Health in Australia, was launched this week based on their database of 13,000 goods sold at three major grocery chains in Hong Kong to provide more detailed information on products.