Australian food labelling laws are currently under scrutiny following an outbreak of hepatitis A linked to imported frozen berries.
The health scare has put momentum behind a parliamentary enquiry held by South Australian Liberal Member of Parliament, Rowan Ramsey, which recommends a reworking of product labelling.
“At the heart of the recommendations is that each item should have a separate reference to the ingredients and the manufacture of goods,” Ramsey said in the enquiry's report last year.
Sam Tucker of South Australian company Tucker's Natural has long been a step ahead of the regulations – and perhaps even consumers.
Since the company launched around seven years ago, they've constantly pushed for better labelling, more transparency and putting greater power in the hands of consumers.
“We launched seven years ago. In year two we were looking at global trends and doing our market analysis, and certainly identified the health and functional food spaces as the future,” Tucker says.
The idea for the company – and it's push for healthy food – came about when he began discovering rice crackers littered around his house – the MSG-laden flavouring diligently licked off each one by his three infant sons.
Tucker got to work on developing a multi-fibre and smart snack range.
Consumer trends meant that supermarket shelves were focused on 'free from' products, whether that was free from egg, dairy, gluten or other intolerance related ingredients, rather than 'better for you' products.
“Multifibre isn't the sexiest term. We developed that range thinking that we were absolute geniuses and we were going to take over the world. We took that to the major supermarkets and they looked at us like we were on planet nine,” says Tucker.
Over time, Tucker says, consumers and the industry have caught up. And as they've caught up, the marketing and sales points that arise from being healthy often outweigh the cost of premium ingredients and packaging.
t's a dangerous strategy not to be transparent and not to live up to what you're saying you're going to deliver.
Consumer’s buying habits, as well as their palates, have developed to look for healthier choices. An outcome of this was the development of the consumer watchdog CHOICE's front-of-pack Health Stars Rating Scheme.
Although initially beset by a litany of scandals and resistance from industry groups, the rating scheme has been approved and Australian food manufacturers can voluntarily implement the front of package ratings. Tucker’s Natural was first in line.
In the first round of ranking, only three out of 260 foods were given a five star rating in the scheme. Tucker's Natural produces two out of those three.
“From a customer perspective – I don't mean the end consumer – the ratings certainly lend credibility to what we're presenting to our buyers.”
Just about all of Tucker's Naturals products are developed with such ratings in mind, although sometimes the products don’t fall within the rating system
It's easy to be transparent when you're honest.
He first had 'the door slammed on his face' when developing the Portion Snack Range for the Healthy Kids schools program.
“We do better than the criteria. We usually beat it. And then they turn around and say, well, no, you don't qualify for some unusual thing.”
In this case, where foods are divided in to green, amber and red, his products fall firmly in to the green product in every single way – except they're classed as processed foods, and there's no green category for processed foods.
That prompted Tucker's Natural to make their own rating system, of a sort.
“I said, look, this is ridiculous. Let's create our own way of managing that for our own brand. So we came up with the Everyday Smart Snack logo. We've used that to communicate that we know you can eat it everyday as part of a balanced diet.”
The key to a move like that, Sam Tucker thinks, is to back it up. The brand has always made a push for transparency. While they used to communicate just about everything via packaging, Tucker says it became too much.
They instead push a vast majority of that information to their website, under a 'Smart Snack' portal. Ingredient lists, fibre content and more are all an effort to build trust with the consumer.
It's something that we need to accept as an industry, that we need to provide as much information to consumers as possible for them to make the right decisions.
“In age of transparency and consumerism, it's easy for the customer to connect and pass opinion, and it's a dangerous strategy not to be transparent and not to live up to what you're saying you're going to deliver,” Tucker says.
When asked if he thinks the ratings are too stringent, seeing as only three of the 260 products reviewed received five star ratings, Tucker was reluctant to condemn the ratings.
“The fact that a lot of snacks – and again we're not privy to the list of products – assuming, those snacks were processed foods, it shows you that the marketing claims being made on a lot of products are potentially misleading.”
It's a sentiment that CHOICE shares, saying that a lot of consumers were tired of being misled by labels of 'low fat' when the fat could just as likely have been replaced by artificial sweeteners, not really providing tangible health benefits in the long rung.
“It's easy to be transparent when you're honest,” says Tucker.
There are legitimate grievances with the ratings system. Manufacturers will be the ones to take up the cost of reworking their labelling, and Tucker also acknowledges a lot of people take issue with the fact that the stars will take up valuable marketing space – especially if it's not a particularly high-scoring product.
“I think it's something that we need to accept as an industry, that we need to provide as much information to consumers as possible for them to make the right decisions. Consumers are sensible. They make decisions every day.
“If a consumer is looking to eat healthy and they're satisfied the criteria is going to assist that, then it certainly does help to rate products and allow them to make better decisions. If it's an easier thing for the consumer to understand, we're happy with that.”
Tucker's Everyday Smart Snacking
CHOICE – results of research on serving sizes and daily intake
Department of Health's analysis on front of pack labelling updatesJump to next article