Something significant is happening to New Zealand's response to front-of-pack food labelling, which might be good news for consumers. After years of the industry studiously and successfully delaying any move to give consumers easy, and clear labelling about what's in the packaged food they buy, the game might be up.

We should have been a long way further advanced. An independent report commissioned by the Australian and New Zealand governments in 2009 (we are supposedly meant to co-operate on matters of food safety and standards) called for, among other things, a system of traffic light labelling. But NZ chose to go its own way. It set up an "advisory group" of industry representatives and nutritionists, but no consumer representatives to look further at the issue.

In contrast, Australia has just approved a simple-to-understand health-star rating system. It shows sodium, saturated fat, sugar and energy content, then an overall star rating up to five. The system is voluntary but the industry has been told if there is not strong participation, the government will make it mandatory after two years. At the same time the UK has launched a voluntary traffic light system, which has been signed up to by the main supermarkets and several large food manufacturers.

New Zealand could have been at the same stage as Australia and moving into trials right now but for the decision in February last year to set up a separate "advisory group". It presented a set of principles for the then minister in November last year. And that it appears is where they sat.

New Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye, appointed this year, obviously noticed the Aussies had cracked a system which industry and consumers could agree on. She probably also realised NZ looked conspicuously out of step. She called the "advisory group" together a couple of weeks ago (unusually, Consumer NZ was invited) wanting answers. To say NZ had missed the boat in terms of joining Australia on the huge amount of research it has put into developing the star rating system would be an understatement. But let's not dwell on that. The Minister has shown she is prepared to move on the issue. What NZ needs now is to get up to speed with the Australians and launch the star-rating system here.

Why does any of this matter? Obesity. In a 2011-2012 NZ Health Survey 21 percent of children aged 2-14 years were overweight and 10 percent were obese, up from 8 percent in 2006-2007. We're about to publish the results of a survey on breakfast cereals for kids. Of the cereals we surveyed, most had high levels of sugar. We think consumers should easily be able to see that for themselves. That's why it matters.

The facts

  • Most food packages must have a nutrition information panel (NIP). But it is typically in small print, usually can't be read without taking the product off the shelf, and most shoppers don't understand what the numbers mean. That's where front-of-pack labelling helps. It provides nutrition information at-a-glance. Research suggests this helps consumers understand the nutritional content of foods and makes it easier for them to make healthy choices. It can also be an incentive for industry to reduce the total fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium in packaged foods.
  • The Australian star-rating system ranges from a half star to five stars – the more stars the better. It is determined by a calculation which considers the good and bad nutritional aspects of the food. The system will include nutrient information about sodium, saturated fat, sugars and energy (kilojoules), which will sit under the star rating. The nutrient information will be presented per 100g/mL of the product, or per pack if the product is designed to be eaten in one go.
  • The Australians are looking at ways of better presenting milk and some other dairy products which don't rate well in the star-rating system.

About the author:

Sue Chetwin has been our Chief Executive since April 2007 after more than 25 years in print journalism. She was formerly the Editor of Sunday News, Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday. She says there are strong parallels between consumer advocacy and journalism.

Sue oversees all of Consumer’s operations and is also the public face of the organisation. Sue is a director of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme, an alternate on the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commission and a member of the Electricity Authority Retail Advisory group.