By now you will have seen food packaging with ‘health star ratings’ – a prominent display of a number of stars between one (being the worst) and five (being the best). It’s a bit like a film review or the energy rating on your fridge.
The ratings system came about as a joint initiative between governments in Australia and New Zealand and a host of peak bodies, some concerned with food production, others with public health, and others with consumer choice. They were made following the clear packaging recommendations contained in the 2011 Blewett Report: ‘Labelling Logic’ – The Final Report of the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy.
While the use of these ratings is not compulsory, they are becoming more common. It is expected that once adopted by a sufficient number of producers in a particular food line, consumers will come to expect them and this will pressure other producers to begin using the system.
Perhaps the main driver of the ratings system is the concept of ‘truth in labelling’. This is the idea that it is relatively easy to label food products with words that while being strictly correct may in fact lead consumers into holding a belief about the particular food product that is not at all correct. Examples include:
- Country of origin labelling: is it fair to say that a food product assembled in Australia from foreign ingredients was ‘made in Australia’? Do not such words carry the risk that a consumer may believe that the product contains Australian produce from start to finish? The ACCC has recently focused on this issue. Please see previous article A reminder about truth in food labelling
- Health-claim labelling: is it misleading for a high sugar but low fat food, such as boiled lollies or jubes, to prominently claim that they are ‘98% fat free’? Such statements seems reasonably (but not strictly logically) to imply that the food is healthy, whereas it may contain incredibly excessive amounts of sugar. Of course, a counterargument to this is who on earth would think that boiled lollies are as healthy as, say, an apple?
- Animal welfare labelling: would you think that the bird you are about to eat, marketed as a ‘free range chicken’, had a more pleasurable life than the bird your neighbour is about to eat, sold to her as a product of ‘RSPCA approved farming’? The same with pigs. We hear that their living conditions can differ, so when a labelling campaign refers to a ‘sow stall free’ pork product what does this really mean? It sounds kind of humane.
It will be interesting to see how successful the health star ratings prove to be in providing consumers with the basic nutritional information that governments and peak bodies are concerned may not be being adequately disseminated.
One potential hiccup already: I noticed a popular flavoured milk powder has received a four and a half star rating, which its packaging proudly displays. Upon further investigation, and having ascertained that this was not a misprint, I noticed a little asterisk next to the rating. This led to a disclaimer of sorts. It explained that if you wanted your particular glass of flavoured milk to actually be a four and a half star drink, then you needed to limit the drink to 100ml (that’s 5 tablespoons of milk) and use skim milk. No system will be perfect.
Author: Bede Haines
Alistair Salmon, Partner
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