What should be on the front of a food package? Ideally, some kind of easy-to-grasp breakdown of the item’s nutritional value. After a prolonged period of consideration, Australia and New Zealand have both decided to use the health star rating (HSR) system (pictured). Stars are already familiar to the public, being used on appliances to indicate their energy efficiency or water efficiency. Hotels and movies are also rated by the star system, and of course many online services use stars to allow consumers to rate their products. Stars are convenient, visually attractive, and easily understood.
In 2011, the Australian government issued a 186-page report titled Labelling Logic that included a two-page glossary just to list all the acronyms and abbreviations it contains. The panel that put it together made 61 recommendations including the MTL or Multiple Traffic Lights system, which ultimately was not implemented.
Apparently, it was only after years of negotiation that consumer activist groups and the food industry came to an agreement, a process contributed to and overseen by the secretary of the health department. Politically, it was a Solomonic compromise, with neither side getting exactly what it wanted.
What did happen
Kyle Turner and Steven Allender write that the health and consumer groups tried for years to have the traffic-light labeling system adopted. The food industry, for some reason, rejected the traffic-light paradigm, which anyway performed unimpressively in at least one Australian study. The bureaucracy also nixed the traffic lights, and there was even a scandal involving a government figure and a conflict-of-interest problem.
The food industry didn’t want the traffic lights, but it didn’t want the HSR, either. The manufacturers were fine with continuing the daily intake guide, a system in use since 2006. The authors explain the corporations’ preferred method like this:
Daily intake guide values are based on an average adult’s daily requirement of 8,700 kilojoules (kJ) and intended as a set of reference values for acceptable intakes of energy and a variety of nutrients. It currently features on about 7,200 products but there’s no evidence that it’s effective.
Nevertheless, the daily intake guide will remain, in conjunction with the health star rating. That’s right, packaging will feature both. And why not? In a world of unexpected calories and mystery ingredients, any information is welcome that helps consumers know what they are eating. The star system was actually approved a year ago, when a two-year timeline was set. In other words, the food industry should voluntarily comply within that time frame, or the requirement would become mandatory, which amounts to the same thing in the end. But when new government officials took office, the deadline was moved to five years in the future, by which time all food manufacturers are expected to have the system in place.
This came about because the incoming Assistant Minister for Health ordered a cost-benefit analysis. It was decided that rapid implementation of the plan over a mere two years would be too expensive for the industry, but more easily affordable over a longer time span. A government bureau, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, provides a health star rating calculator and style guide with which manufacturers must comply.
Dr. Pretlow has suggested a labeling system to indicate the addictiveness of various foods. The addictive potential would be assessed by asking teenagers which foods they encounter the most problems with resisting, and products would be rated with a numerical value of 1-5. That might not be a bad idea.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “After three-year saga, health star rating labels finally ready to go,” TheConversation.com, 06/27/14
Source: “The Health Star Rating System Style Guide and Calculator – the basics,” Lexlogy.com, 2014
Image by Australian government