Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Amber Light Given for Food Labels

By Ian Lowe

A review of food labelling is introducing a traffic-light warning system but left it voluntary for purveyors of junk food.

The long-awaited review of food labelling, chaired by former Commonwealth Health Minister Dr Neal Blewett, has been released. Labelling Logic is a relatively cautious report, with a heavy emphasis on voluntary change.While it recommends the formation of a Trans-Tasman Food Labelling Bureau with the resources to monitor and “assist industry to comply with labelling requirements”, Dr Alan Barclay, head of research at the Australian Diabetes Foundation, said it would be much better to have a comprehensive regulator covering both food and therapeutic goods “given the widespread abuse at the food–therapeutic goods interface”.

The report plumped for the traffic-light system of guidance to consumers, with green lights for healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables. Foods high in salt and sugar would carry a warning red light. We may not see a rapid outbreak of these warnings, however, since the report recommended that the system be voluntary in the first instance “except where general or high-level health claims are made”. That probably means that few products will carry the warning red light. Nobody pretends that junk foods have high level health benefits, so the system will remain voluntary. I suspect very few producers will want to warn consumers that their foods are unhealthy!

The move to the simple traffic-light scheme has been applauded by nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, although she would prefer to see it mandatory. “Studies in the UK have shown that red dots next to sugar, fat or salt on the front of a food package can turn some people off purchasing the product,” she wrote. “That’s good news for public health but bad news for those who sell us these junk foods.” Stanton noted that the food industry in Europe was so worried labelling would reduce sales of unhealthy foods it has spent €1 billion campaigning against the scheme.

As soon as the local report was released, grocery chains started claiming the coloured dots would increase costs to consumers. Stanton concluded: “Voluntary traffic light labelling is a step in the right direction, but it’s also a vote for procrastination”.

The report also recommends an extension of country-of-origin labelling to help consumers choose local products. Perhaps most importantly, it recommends mandatory declaration of energy content of food items in vending machines and “chain food service outlets”. In other words, junk food outlets will be required at least to warn their customers of the high energy levels of their products. It may not deter those addicted to junk food, but it could help parents choose wisely for children.

The relationships between governments and mining companies are back on the political agenda. In the same week that BHP-Billiton announced a record profit of $10.6 billion, new Treasury analysis found the Australian government sacrificed two-thirds of the likely revenue when it scaled back its proposed “super-profits tax” after a media barrage from mining companies.

The profit announcement also provoked a worrying response from the South Australian government in response to BHP-Billiton’s proposed expansion of its Olympic Dam operation, a very large underground copper, gold and uranium mine. The scale of the proposal is mind-boggling. A pit 4 km across and 1 km deep would need to be excavated just to reach the ore body. This would reportedly be the largest hole on the face of the Earth. Production from the mine would be increased by about a factor of ten, as would the waste stream.

Local environmental groups are understandably concerned that the impacts are properly assessed. A draft impact assessment was submitted some time ago and a supplementary report is now with the State and Commonwealth governments, which have yet to decide if there is enough information for the assessments to be released for public comment. But the responsible SA Minister, Kevin Foley, was quoted as saying that the profit announcement augured well for the expansion to go ahead. "We're very confident – very confident – that we can be in a position in the early part of next year for BHP's board to consider this matter and, hopefully, give it the green light", he said.

This sounds remarkably like an admission that the government has already decided that the project will go ahead, making the environmental assessment and public consultation a farce.