How much can fit on a label?

Wednesday, 13 September, 2006

Consumers have a basic right to know what they are purchasing. They need information so that they can make informed decisions. But when does enough information become too much?

In general, the food industry has accommodated the needs of the community and regulators with good grace. Country of origin, nutrition panel, list of potential allergens, use-by date, ingredients listed in descending order, percentage of 'characterising' ingredient, address and contact details, storage conditions, additives (including their prescribed numbers), genetic modification status, irradiation information, lot number in case of product recall - all of this information is required on the food product label. Furthermore, the label has to be legible, written in English and accurately describe the product. After all of this, there still has to be space for the product name and brand.

The nutrition information panels are part of the government's public health strategy as they ensure that consumers can make informed choices about the products they are purchasing. This public health tool is essentially financed by the food manufacturers as it is the manufacturers' responsibility to both include the information and make sure it is accurate.

Obesity epidemic

Now the food manufacturing industry is being held responsible by many for the 'obesity epidemic'. Consumers are said to be eating too much and not exercising enough because they are unaware of the nutritional implications of the foods they eat.

Acting as responsible members of the community the food industry is responding by trying to fit even more information on its labels.

The Australian Beverages Council has put into place a range of key proposals which it hopes to implement in the next two years. It wants to introduce front-of-pack labelling which will clearly indicate the energy content of all soft drink containers marketed as single-serves, such as 375 mL cans. In addition, the percentage that this represents of the average daily intake for an adult male will also be clearly displayed.

Simultaneously, the percentage of daily intake information for all major nutrients will be included on the nutritional panel.

Coca Cola has taken the lead with its new labels set to hit the supermarket shelves this summer. Its 'at a glance' format, which gives energy per serve and percentage of daily requirement, is quite succinct but will consumers understand and use this information? I am guessing that those consumers who would use the information already know it.


A recent article in the British Medical Journal had two experts go head-to-head over whether or not the dangers of childhood food allergies are exaggerated. Two interesting facts that emerged were that in the UK, one child in 16 million dies per year from food allergy and in 80% of cases the allergy was undiagnosed prior to the incident. The publicity afforded to food allergies is creating an environment of hysteria where schools and childcare facilities are banning peanut products and people with mild allergies are purchasing Epi-Pens. Food manufacturers end up claiming "May contain traces of nuts" on all their labels out of fear that they may be liable in the event of an allergy reaction, not because there are really traces of nuts in the product.

This is not good use of valuable label space.

Eventually we are going to run out of room on our labels.

Everyone agrees that a healthy, balanced diet and exercise are the keys to good health and that consumers should be able to get enough information on their food labels to make informed decisions. Ultimately, what a person consumes is up to the person (or the person's carers). Access to sufficient information so the person can make an informed choice is reasonable. Responsibility for the person's choice does not belong to the manufacturer.

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