Food labelling in Australia and New Zealand: innovation and larger trials needed to provide evidence base to battle obesity

An international evaluation of food labelling systems is the focus of a presentation at this year's Australia and New Zealand Obesity Society (ANZOS) meeting in Auckland (18-20 Oct). In it, Associate Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu (National Institute for Health Innovation, University of Auckland, New Zealand) will say that the only way to address the current gaps in evidence is to have rigorously conducted trials at a regional (or even national) level in both countries, and embrace innovation

Most regions of the world, including the UK, Scandinavia, and the European Union (EU) as a whole, plus the United States, have voluntary policies to include nutrition information on their packs, although the EU will make this compulsory from 2016. Australia and New Zealand are in a way already more advanced since nutrition information panels (NIP) are mandatory in both countries. In the UK, a major supermarket retailer (Sainsbury's) has, since 2007, been experimenting with traffic light labelling in which good, medium, or bad levels of sugar, salt, fat, and saturated fat are labelled as green, orange, or red respectively. Another major retailer (Tesco) is about to start traffic light labelling. Australia and New Zealand both have daily intake guides on more than 10% of supermarket foods (approximately 2000 products), and approval from their respective National Heart Foundations on some. Both countries also have other indicators for healthier foods such as glycaemic index (GI) and Be Treatwise marks. While the evidence of any effect is currently small, Ni Mhurchu says "even a small improvement in healthier food choices at a population level could translate into real health benefits".

Moves are underway to introduce front-of-pack labelling in both Australia and New Zealand. Both nations were part of the Independent (Blewett) Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy that was completed in early 2011, and both then took part in a Minsterial Forum to guide food labelling policy that has agreed approach to voluntary front-of-pack labelling. Now both countries are independently moving forward in the process. In Australia, the Department of Health And Ageing is in charge of implementation and is expected to make recommendations early in 2013. In New Zealand a special advisory group of academics, industry, health organisations, and other interested parties is leading the process and a report is expected to go to the NZ Minister for Food and Safety in November this year. "The proposals must produce ideas that can be workable with all of New Zealand and Australia's diverse populations," says Ni Mhurchu, who has co-authored published research showing that Maori and Pacific peoples in New Zealand struggle to understand existing mandatory food labelling .

It's not just the supermarkets that need to be targeted. Ni Mhurchu will discuss US research showing that diners in takeaways order up to 14% less calories in a visit, and consume up to 250 calories less per day, when given nutrition labelling and explanatory information. However Ni Mhurchu adds: "Observational studies are insufficient for drawing causal inferences and laboratory studies cannot simulate real world behaviour, especially since repeated exposure to labels may be required to influence choice. Gradual randomised introduction of calorie menu label implementation on a regional level would provide strongest evidence with use of sales data and obesity rates."

"While these types of trials would be the best way forward, we need to accept that conducting this kind of research in the real world at large scale can be difficult ," says Ni Mhurchu. She points to recent developments in South Korea and China, where commuters have been able to do their supermarket shopping on platforms in underground stations using virtual kiosks. Ni Mhurchu and colleagues have developed a virtual supermarket for NZ and are planning to use it as a setting for a trial of front-of-pack labels as well as the interaction between labels and food pricing in driving consumer choice. They have a funding application for this research currently under consideration by funding agencies.

Ni Mhurchu will also highlight the FoodSwitch traffic light label app developed for smart phones by the George Institute, Sydney, that allows consumers to compare nutrition information easily across a range of products. "We need to embrace these new concepts if we are to fight the obesity battle on all fronts," concludes Ni Mhurchu. "It's from this kind of innovation, as well as more conventional trials, that we'll get the evidence we need regarding the impact of labels on consumer food choices."

Associate Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, National Institute for Health Innovation, University of Auckland, New Zealand T) +64 21 722240 E)

Tony Kirby PR Ltd T) +44 7834 385827 E)