Editorial: Labelling rules for food overdue but welcome

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Photo / APN
Photo / APN

It seems an eternity since New Zealand and Australia decided to jointly regulate health claims made on food packaging.

Ten years have passed since their officials began developing a standard to assess nutritional, health and related claims. In that time they have set up advisory groups, published countless reports and draft policies and undertaken no fewer than six rounds of public consultation.

On Sunday at last, Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye signed an agreed standard that will hold food manufacturers to account for more than 200 common health claims such as "rich in calcium", "low in fat".

The standard will take effect in a month and manufacturers will have three years to ensure their products comply with it.

Three years seems unduly generous considering how long the standard has been in gestation and how closely the industry has been consulted at every turn.

If manufacturers have not already taken steps to ensure a product will meet the standard, they probably intend to remove the misleading claim from their label, in which case they should have to do it somewhat sooner than 2016. But that is a quibble that does not diminish the welcome this regulation deserves. Consumers ought to be able to trust the information on food labels and it is particularly important that consumers can trust any food produced or manufactured in this country.

The name New Zealand should be a synonym for food that is pure, wholesome, honest and reliable in its stated properties.

That does not mean, of course, that it is always low in fat or sugar. Milk contains more fat than soft drinks, fruit is full of sugar. Those are among the complications the regulators have had to consider. But milk has plenty of compensating health claims it can make, while fresh fruit hardly needs to make them.

It will be a task of the Ministry for Primary Industries to approve such claims for New Zealand products before they are put on sale. Manufacturers have welcomed the regulation and it is to be hoped they see it not as a restriction but as a golden marketing opportunity. Their products should boast their ability to meet the standard and let it underline the health benefits printed on the package.

New Zealand naturally has a healthy image in world food markets and this step should reinforce it - so long as the Government ensures the ministry can police the standard rigorously. National has not always sounded as interested as the previous Government in food labelling standards, and neither have been as determined as the Green Party.

All parties in politics have something positive to offer and on this subject the country owes much to the Greens, particularly their former MP Sue Kedgley. She made food standards her mission in politics and health-conscious consumers will be grateful to her.

It is a pity her party was equivocal in its support for the standard yesterday. Its new food safety spokeswoman, Mojo Mathers, said the regulations should not just check health claims, they should require warnings of unhealthy contents. They should not. People know the food that is not good for them and they indulge in it because they like it. They do not need warnings on the carton.

When they go looking for healthy food, however, they need and deserve to be able to trust the manufacturer's claims.

The time it has taken for the authorities and the industry to agree on what those claims should reasonably mean, give confidence that the rules will prove to be robust and fair.

In three years we may be able to read a label and believe it.

- NZ Herald

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