Packaged food looks likely to be labelled with star ratings to guide consumers in the battle to beat obesity.

New Zealand public health and food industry representatives appointed by the Government last year produced a set of broad principles for a voluntary front-of-pack labelling system. It refers to "marks" but would be compatible with a star system, like the one used for energy rating on electrical appliances.

The group was disbanded in November. It is now widely expected that New Zealand will piggy-back on the Australian system - due to be finalised by June - because of the strong transtasman connections within the food industry.

But a nutrition expert, Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, fears the voluntary system may be dominated by Australian food industry pressure for even unhealthy foods to get a star.


Although details of the Australian system are still being worked out, reports have suggested it could be a multi-star system - the more stars the healthier - plus simple indicators of salt, added sugar, saturated fat and energy content. A healthy nutrition component may be included.

The advisory group was appointed after Australian and New Zealand food ministers decided to move towards a new labelling system and to put on hold the recommendation of a transtasman review to introduce a mainly voluntary traffic light system.

Public health advocates have long called for traffic light red, orange and green dots to clearly tell consumers if a food is healthy or unhealthy, but food manufacturers objected to the negative connotation of a red dot on their products.

Dr Ni Mhurchu, a public health expert on the Government group, said a visual front-of-pack system - whether stars, colours or ticks - was better than the current system of nutrition labelling. "It will make it easier for consumers to understand the difference between products in the same category and to make healthier choices if they want to do that."

The advisory group recommended that it should be possible for a food to score zero stars, but Dr Ni Mhurchu said some of its food industry representatives were "very much in favour of a system where any food could get a star". Public health advocates had opposed that because it could mislead consumers into a positive connotation about an unhealthy food with one star, while some healthy foods might have no stars as their manufacturers had not joined the voluntary system.

NZ Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich, a member of the advisory group, said the council's view echoed the consensus decision to start at zero marks.