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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Obesity prevention and personal responsibility: the case of front-of-pack food labelling in Australia

Roger S Magnusson

Author Affiliations

Faculty of Law, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

BMC Public Health 2010, 10:662  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-662

Published: 2 November 2010

Abstract

Background

In Australia, the food industry and public health groups are locked in serious struggle for regulatory influence over the terms of front-of-pack food labelling. Clear, unambiguous labelling of the nutritional content of pre-packaged foods and of standardized food items sold in chain restaurants is consistent with the prevailing philosophy of 'personal responsibility'. An interpretive, front-of-pack labelling scheme has the capacity to encourage healthier patterns of eating, and to be a catalyst for improvements in the nutritional quality of food products through re-formulation. On the other hand, the strength of opposition of the Australian Food and Grocery Council to 'Traffic Light Labelling', and its efforts to promote a non-interpretive, voluntary scheme, invite the interpretation that the food industry is resistant to any reforms that could destabilise current (unhealthy) purchasing patterns and the revenues they represent.

Discussion

This article argues that although policies that aim to educate consumers about the nutritional content of food are welcome, they are only one part of a broader basket of policies that are needed to make progress on obesity prevention and public health nutrition. However, to the extent that food labelling has the capacity to inform and empower consumers to make healthier choices - and to be a catalyst for improving the nutritional quality of commercial recipes - it has an important role to play. Furthermore, given the dietary impact of meals eaten in fast food and franchise restaurants, interpretive labelling requirements should not be restricted to pre-packaged foods.

Summary

Food industry resistance to an interpretive food labelling scheme is an important test for government, and a case study of how self-interest prompts industry to promote weaker, voluntary schemes that pre-empt and undermine progressive public health regulation.