"No measurable benefit" to mandatory pregnancy labels

Food Standards Australia New Zealand has doubled down on its mandatory pregnancy risk warning labels despite ministers declaring it placed an“unreasonable cost burden on the industry”.

A review of the labels requested by Food Forum Minsters and published today has been met with dismay by the industry for including only minor concessions.

A major point of contention with the labels has been the imposition of a prescribed colour scheme and wording. The updated label will retain the mandated colours stipulated in earlier reports, and state ‘Pregnancy Warning: Alcohol can cause lifelong harm to your baby’:

In February 2020 FSANZ said it would be making pregnancy risk warning labels on alcohol containers mandatory on alcoholic beverages over 1.15% abv. In its original approval report, FSANZ said that it would be implementing mandatory labels despite acknowledging that it is “generally accepted that where alcohol warnings labels have been introduced they have had limited impact on consumption behaviour.”

Ministers responsible for food regulation scrapped these plans and asked the organisation back in April to review the amendment.

In a 45-page review made public today, FSANZ made some minor concessions from their original report, changing the ‘Health Warning’ text to ‘Pregnancy Warning’ as well as introducing an extended transition period, giving alcohol manufacturers three years instead of two to implement the label.

FSANZ justified the decision saying that only a small proportion of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) cases would need to be prevented to “offset the total cost of label changes”. It stated that the average cost estimates of label changes per product may have been “overestimated” and implementation costs would not be unreasonable for the industry.

It also said the incremental cost of applying the colour red to a black an white warning label “is generally likely to be small, at around 10 per cent of total label change costs overall”. Existing red colours in a beverage label will be allowed in the warning label, it said.

FSANZ argued that the “best available scientific evidence” supported prescribing colours to achieve a high contrast label, saying it provides consistency in consumer understanding of the label. It said that if red was removed from the design, “a significantly larger warning label than currently proposed would be required to maintain noticeability”.

It also argued that the change to ‘Pregnancy Warning’ over a generic ‘Health Warning’ would target a specific group at whom the warning label message is ultimately directed. This is despite its earlier report saying that ‘Health Warning’ would help support a secondary objective of providing information to the broader community.

Andrew Wilsmore, CEO of Alcohol Beverages Australia, said that while the industry supports the mandating of pregnancy risk warning labels, mandating colours “would impose the biggest cost on consumers, without any scientific basis, for no measurable benefit.”

The ABA said it would cost producers, and through them consumers, an extra $400 million due to more expensive label printing costs. Wilsmore said that the current voluntary system means that three out of every four items in a shopper’s basket contains a label.

He said it was “disappointing” it had taken so long to get to this point. The first meeting at which Food Forum Ministers agreed that mandatory labelling standards for pregnancy risk warnings should be developed was back in October 2018.

“What should have been a simple exercise was made infinitely more complicated when bureaucrats at FRSC (Food Regulation Standing Committee) and FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) continued to put forward a proposed design that was not in keeping with the clear direction given to them by Governments,” Wilsmore said.

“Despite the clear direction given by Food Forum Ministers to ditch the colour version, the bureaucrats just can’t let go of their pet design and it is back again.

“It is extremely concerning that FRSC and FSANZ bureaucrats have totally ignored Ministers’ direction and submissions made to them which outlined where their proposal incurred substantial and ongoing costs.

“Fortunately Ministers can now insist on the common sense design they and producers supported in March by amending the mandated colour to be in line with Food Code requirements for legibility and contrast, and will be cost-effective to implement.”

The Forum has 60 days to consider FSANZ’s review and decide whether to accept, amend or reject the amendment to the Code.

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