Labelling to discourage responsibility

Reports in The Australian today show that State and Federal Health Ministers cannot help themselves when faced with the choice about meddling in people’s consumption. According to the report Australia will introduce a health star-rating system on food in the hope it will cut obesity:

A RADICAL new health star-rating system will be printed on the front of all food packages as part of a planned federal government campaign to cut obesity.

The plan will be put to state and federal ministers tomorrow but threatens to provoke a row with the food and grocery industry, which has written to state health ministers expressing concerns about the scheme.

Dairy farmers also are understood to have concerns about the food ratings system, which treats milk differently from soft drinks and confectionery.

The new scheme has been developed across the past two years after the controversial traffic light food labelling system was dumped by the government in late 2011.

At this stage the idea is only voluntary, which is the polite way for government to say that it is voluntary before it will be made compulsory:

The system would be trialled as a voluntary code, but a mandatory code has been included in proposals put to state and territory ministers for agreement at tomorrow’s meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council.

The most logical question to be asked is – where is the evidence this idea will work? The answer is that there is none. It’s just a political fix between the demands of the public health lobby, the industry that wants to look like it is acting without doing much, and government who just wants to claim credit.

In fact, the government has already conceded they don’t know if it will work:

The new star-rating system will be backed by a “social marketing campaign” run by the Australian National Preventive Health Agency. The plan includes extensive market research to explore the effect of the new system on consumer behaviour.

The standards of assessing efficacy should be put under scrutiny. In the past the public health lobby has simply claimed awareness is evidence a policy works Рan absurd proposition. That, or that consumers say it will influence their behaviour which is rarely backed up with action. What they have to actually prove is that the labels change consumer behaviour.

Of course what these token measures rarely do is address the key problem of encouraging consumers to take more responsibility. Advocates claim it helps inform consumers, but only by treating them like idiots, not making fully informed decisions.

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