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Clocktower. Friday 15 October 2010 4:11pm

Food manufacturers and the public health sector are at loggerheads over front-of-pack nutrition labelling, according to an editorial in today's issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal.

This finding comes from a study of submissions to the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy currently being conducted in Canberra, and applying to both New Zealand and Australia. Research on the submissions has been carried out by the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington.

The panel conducting the review will make recommendations to Ministers from both countries, including New Zealand Minister of Food Safety, Kate Wilkinson, later this year.

Results show that 62% of submissions from food manufacturers favour use of a “Daily Intake Guide” on the front of food packages. This shows the percentage of the recommended daily intake of nutrients such as fat, sugar and salt in a single serving of a food product.

However no submissions from the health sector agree. Instead the sector favours schemes that interpret nutrition information for shoppers, so that they do not have to understand percentages and make complex calculations.

The scheme most favoured in health sector submissions uses traffic light colours – green, amber and red – to show how a product fits within a healthy diet. Green lights show that a product has low levels of saturated fats, sugar and salt, while red lights indicate high levels.

More than half of health sector submissions think that a traffic light scheme is a good approach, with none disagreeing. None of the submissions by food manufacturers back this approach.

“This situation poses a problem for the panel considering the submissions”, says lead researcher John White. “We know from experience in Europe that food manufacturers will lobby very strongly against the introduction of a traffic light scheme. They don't want a red light indicating high levels of fat, sugar or salt on any of their products.”

Neither the New Zealand Government nor two Australian Federal Departments expressed views on the merits of either scheme. However, four Australian state or territory governments think a traffic light scheme would be a good approach, with none supporting the “Daily Intake Guide” scheme.

Mr White says that poor diet is a leading cause of chronic diseases that kill most New Zealanders. It's estimated that around 40% of all deaths in New Zealand are the result of poor diet and physical inactivity, with diet mainly responsible. He says nutrition labelling that makes it easier for shoppers to make healthy food choices can have major long term health benefits.

New Zealand research shows that those most at risk from chronic diseases – Māori, Pacific and low-income shoppers and their families – are likely to particularly benefit from a traffic light or similar scheme.

For further information

John White
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel: 04 971 5415
Mob: 027 436 5264

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