Truth in labelling

Labelling mock up: click to view larger image


The OPC is calling for a mandatory traffic light labelling scheme to enable consumers to make informed and healthier food choices.

There are few rules about the words, symbols and images that can be displayed on the front of food packaging, allowing food manufacturers to confuse and in some cases mislead consumers about the nutrition content and healthiness of foods.

The OPC's example of a typical front of pack, "Natural Berry Bars - Summer Classic" (hyperlink) demonstrates some of the labelling techniques that food manufacturers use to make foods appear healthier than they are. These techniques confuse consumers about the true nutrition content of foods and make it difficult for people to compare products at a glance.

For example:

  • Positive nutrients are often highlighted ("High in Fibre", "20% of your daily whole grain target") while other nutrients that make the product unhealthy overall are not disclosed (such as high levels of saturated fat or sugar).
  • Images of fruit are displayed to create the impression that a product is healthy, when in fact it may only contain a small amount of fruit, fruit flavours or concentrate, and have little or no health benefit. .
  • Percentage daily intake labels (now used by a number of food manufacturers) indicate the contribution a serve of the product makes to an average adult's daily recommended intake of certain nutrients. However these labels are confusing, difficult to interpret and may mislead consumers (particularly children) about their daily requirements.
  • Ticks or other symbols are commonly used by food manufacturers to suggest that a product has been endorsed as a healthy choice when it has not.
  • Sports celebrities are displayed on food packaging to create the impression (particularly among children) that a product is healthy or improves sporting performance.

Consumers should not be faced with a smokescreen of claims, symbols and images when making food choices at their local supermarket. Instead, they should be provided with nutrition information that is easy to understand at a glance and that can assist them to identify and compare healthy and unhealthy foods.

The OPC is therefore calling for a mandatory front-of-pack labelling scheme, which uses  traffic light colours (green, orange or red) to indicate whether the levels of nutrients in a product (fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt) are low, medium or high. The OPC is also advocating for traffic light labels to be required on menus in fast food outlets, in cafeterias and shops in public institutions, such as hospitals and schools, and on the front of vending machines.

There is evidence that traffic light labels:

  • Are easier to use and are less confusing than schemes, such as the percentage daily intake scheme, which do not provide any interpretive guidance about the healthiness of products;
  • Enable all consumers (including consumers from lower socio-economic and culturally/linguistically diverse groups) to quickly understand nutrition information, interpret it and make healthier food choices;
  • Help overcome any misleading impressions created by food labels that display unofficial ticks or symbols, or highlight positive nutrients while failing to disclose other nutrients that make a product unhealthy overall;
  • May encourage food manufacturers to reformulate the nutritional composition of their food to improve traffic light ratings.

New Cancer Council Victoria research indicates that 87% of Australian consumers are in favour of traffic light labelling on food packaging.

A traffic light labelling scheme should be part of a whole new approach to food labelling that includes improved regulation of the health and nutrition claims that can be made on product labels. For example, the OPC is also advocating for regulations that prevent claims about the nutritional content of food (e.g. about high levels of fibre or protein) unless the product is healthy overall.

Any new labelling system, including any traffic light labelling system, should be mandatory and subject to meaningful sanctions to ensure compliance by food manufacturers. It should also be consistently administered and enforced across Australia by a national authority, such as the ACCC.

For more information about the OPC's position on food labelling reform, please refer to the OPC's policy brief on traffic light labelling.