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New study raises concerns about online food labels

A recent study has shed light on a concerning issue regarding food product labels in the online supermarkets of major retailers in Australia, Coles and Woolworths. 

This extensive analysis, conducted on over 22,000 products, reveals a notable absence of essential food label information that is otherwise mandatory for physical products. This includes crucial details such as ingredient lists and allergy warnings. Published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, this study marks the first comprehensive assessment of food labeling completeness in Australian online supermarkets. The findings underscore the pressing need for regulatory adjustments to encompass online retail settings, ensuring that consumers can make informed choices when shopping online.

In traditional brick-and-mortar stores, product labels, including Nutrition Information Panels (NIPs), ingredient lists, allergen declarations, and country-of-origin labels, are mandated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Additionally, Health Star Ratings (HSRs), which offer a quick summary of a product’s healthiness, are voluntarily displayed. However, online stores currently lack explicit obligations to adhere to these labeling standards, despite the significant growth in the online grocery market.

Damian Maganja, the lead author of the study and a PhD Candidate in food policy at The George Institute for Global Health and UNSW Medicine & Health, points out the discrepancy, saying, “Traditionally, shoppers could simply pick up a product to find relevant information. However, there are no requirements to provide the same information to online shoppers before they decide to commit their cash.” This gap in providing essential product information, while possibly unintentional, does hinder consumers from selecting products that align with their dietary and health requirements.

The absence or obscurity of information regarding food products not only affects consumer choice but also raises significant health and safety concerns. Ingredient and allergen information are crucial for individuals with allergies, while NIPs and HSRs play a vital role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Professor Jason Wu, the senior author of the study and head of the Nutrition Science program at The George Institute for Global Health and UNSW Medicine & Health, emphasizes the risks, stating, “For consumers, the lack of available and easy-to-access product information in online stores can pose immediate and long-term health and safety risks.” He underscores the necessity of strengthening labeling requirements in the online retail food sector.

The study’s researchers found that online supermarkets exhibit inconsistencies in food labeling. While country-of-origin labeling was comprehensive, appearing on 93% of food product pages, essential information like allergen labeling and NIPs was often missing. Health Star Ratings were infrequently displayed, particularly for lower-scoring products.

Regulatory guidance necessary

In terms of label visibility, Coles generally made NIPs, ingredients, and allergen information immediately accessible, while Woolworths lagged in this regard. The study suggests that government-mandated labeling standards are essential to ensure consistency and transparency.

Mr. Maganja adds, “If food labeling online is optional, it will vary considerably at best,” emphasizing the need for government intervention. The researchers call on supermarkets to apply all relevant mandatory labels to eligible products online and adhere to their commitments for displaying HSRs on private-label products.

“The guiding principles should remain the same regardless of whether the product is sold in-store or online,” Mr Maganja says. “That is – information about a food product should be available to consumers before purchase and displayed prominently and visibly.

“Governments must also make the Health Star Rating system mandatory for all packaged products, whether online or in-store, so that shoppers aren’t misled by selective application and can better compare between products to select the healthier option.”

As the data for the study was collected in 2022, the researchers say repeat assessments monitoring the progress of food labelling practices for online supermarkets are needed to hold retailers accountable and inform policy.

“We also need to better understand the newer, more subtle strategies retailers use to shape consumer buying online, so that the overall healthiness of online retail food environments can be improved,” Mr Maganja says.

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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