As readers of Food Navigator know full well respectable and well-established food companies take such criticisms very seriously, particularly when they have gone to great lengths to ensure every last piece of text on their packaging is checked and double-checked against the Australian New Zealand Food Code and other laws.
In its report, Choice lobbed some completely unfair and misleading criticisms at some highly respected food companies, so it's important to put the record straight.
In summary, while widely covered in the media in Australia and New Zealand, the only thing that was truly shonky was the Choice's misleading presentation of the facts and ill-informed analysis; but first some background to the issue.
Readers may or may not be aware that Australia and New Zealand share a common food code. In January this year in Australia, and last month in New Zealand, a new food standard to regulate nutrition content and health claims on food labels was gazetted. In it, all food companies were given three years (repeat: three years) to comply with the new food standard.
Those who know about the food industry are well aware that almost all new standards have a sensible transition phase to allow companies to make necessary changes to products and packaging. Some changes, particularly significant ones like the introduction of a the new Health Claims Standard, which was over a decade in development, understandably can take a long time to implement due to the numbers of products and the complexities of the changes.
Through the presentation of its analysis, Choice did something that was more than a little misleading: it took a range of liquid breakfasts, all with currently legal and fully compliant health claims, and analysed those product claims against the newly gazetted standard (to be complied with within three years) as opposed to the current code (still legal in the meantime).
Of course since the new standard had been in effect only a matter of months (weeks from an NZ perspective), so some products don’t comply perfectly the new standard. This is completely expected because firms facing a three-year phase-in have yet to make the changes to their products.
Another significant reason some firms weren't racing to comply immediately is plain common sense – it may be they don't have to make any changes at all.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand is currently running an extensive public consultation on the topic of fibre levels within the Health Standard – the exact claims highlighted by Choice – and this will continue over the next few months.
This means that currently there is no complete clarity from regulators yet as to where the final fibre levels for “source”, “good source” and higher claims will be set.
Some firms expect that fibre levels may actually stay the same after the consultation concludes, so rushing in to comply years ahead of the requirement would be premature and not a smart move, potentially wasting many thousands of dollars in packaging changes.
Choice's attack on firms for making currently legal and compliant claims that within three years may or may not have to change, was a case of sneaky food politics.
The tactics were unfair in the food industry and would be deemed unfair in other parts of the community as well. Choice's misleading attack on food companies is just like an unofficial umpire accusing sports teams of dirty play for breaking a rule that is not yet in force, or a traffic officer issuing speeding tickets for driving at the currently legal speed through a future low speed zone.
To confirm, all the firms that were attacked had products with fully compliant and legal claims. Choice successfully grabbed the headlines, but its criticism misled consumers and does not bear detailed scrutiny.