Australia's main food industry body wants labelling regulations changed so that the weight or quantity no longer has to be displayed on the front of packaging. Why is it seeking the change, and why is it potentially bad news for consumers?
Picture: Cory Doctorow
I wasn't aware of this suggestion until CHOICE put out a press release about the issue last week, but it turns out that it's been in discussion for some time. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) made a submission to the National Commission of Audit last November, and it has made similar proposals elsewhere. Amongst many suggested reforms, it canvassed what's technically known as "front pack measurement marking" — the requirement that the size of packaged foods be clearly displayed on the front of the package.
The AFGC suggests that this is unnecessary and that Australia could adopt the looser European model, which requires the figure to be prominent somewhere on the package, but don't specify the front. It also argues that since large supermarkets are required to display unit pricing, consumers can use that to make comparison. (That's a crock, by the way: the size displayed on packages is much larger than the small print used for unit pricing, and research suggests we're not great at reading it anyway.)
Despite the benign-sounding name, the AFGC is the umbrella body for a $111 billion manufacturing industry in Australia. And, as this post at the Conversation explains in some detail, its stance is firmly anti-regulation. That's good for profits, but not necessarily for consumers or health.
So if you have to print the quantity on the packaging anyway, why does the AFGC care so much? The short answer: changing the rules will make it easier and cheaper to import foods from Europe or other markets which don't have those rules. Right now, any foods imported that don't meet those requirements have to be relabelled.
There's also a second and sneakier motive too. If the size isn't visible, then it's easier to reduce the quantity of food included in a package. We have examples of food companies doing this. For instance, last year Cadbury promoted the fact that its chocolate blocks had "gone up" in size from 200 to 220 grams — but ignored the fact that they had previously been 250 grams. Removing the requirement to display the size would make that even less obvious.
We know that food manufacturers and supermarkets often resort to dubious tactics, and it doesn't seem sensible to make that kind of behaviour even easier. It seems Australians aren't big fans of the idea either; in a group of 3000 surveyed by CHOICE, 74 per cent were opposed. We'll have to see if the AFGC gets its way, but it's hard to see it as a beneficial development for consumers.
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