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‘Huge gap’ in major supermarkets’ food labelling online

The two largest supermarkets in the country – Coles and Woolworths – have been found to have a “huge gap” when it comes to labelling foods for sale online.

A study analysed more than 22,000 products from the online stores of both supermarkets and discovered that many food products lacked critical information, such as ingredient lists and allergy warnings.

According to the researchers, these missing food label components – typically mandatory for products sold in physical stores – pose potential health and safety risks to online consumers.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand mandates nutrition information panels (NIPs), ingredient lists, and allergen declarations, while the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) requires country-of-origin labelling.

Damian Maganja, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in food policy at The George Institute for Global Health and UNSW Medicine & Health, highlighted the disparity between physical and online shopping.

“Traditionally, shoppers could just pick up the product to read its label and find the relevant information,” said Maganja. 

“However, there are no requirements to provide the same information to online shoppers before they decide to commit their cash.”

Labeling inconsistencies

The study also identified inconsistencies in labelling. Only half of the analysed food products had allergen information (53 per cent) and NIPs (49 per cent), while just a third (34 per cent) listed ingredients.

In contrast, the country of origin was consistently present on 93 per cent of food product pages, even though it was recently mandated.

HSRs appeared on just 14 per cent of products across both supermarkets and were also more likely to be present for higher-scoring products, appearing on 22 per cent of products that score 3.5 stars or higher, compared to just 0.4 per cent of products that receive less than 3.5 stars. 

“HSRs, which are intended as an easy-to-use guide to the overall healthiness of a product, are rarely made available, and there was evidence of their selective application to higher scoring products,” said Maganja.

“The almost complete display of country-of-origin labelling, coupled with the differential application of HSRs, may suggest that certain labels are being prioritised for display for marketing purposes.”

Visibility and accessibility of label information

For those with labels, the researchers manually inspected 100 randomly selected product pages in each supermarket to determine if the labelling online was accessible to users or was hard to find.

Professor Jason Wu, senior author of the study and head of the Nutrition Science program at The George Institute for Global Health and UNSW Medicine & Health, stressed the importance of addressing this issue.

“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,” said Professor Wu. 

Coles made NIPs, ingredients, and allergen information immediately visible for labelled products. In contrast, Woolworths displayed NIPs on just 2 per cent of product pages, ingredients on 19 per cent, and none showed allergens.

Coles made the country of origin visible for all products, while Woolworths made this information readily visible on just 86 per cent of its pages.

However, less than a quarter (22 per cent) of HSRs were visible for Coles, while Woolworths made most (70 per cent) HSRs visible.

Call for mandatory standards

The researchers emphasised that the lack of explicit rules on product information in online retail settings permits an inconsistent approach to labelling that undermines consumer choice and needs.

“If food labelling online is optional, it will vary considerably at best,” Maganja said.

“While both major supermarkets can do better on their own, consistent and explicit government-mandated standards will better ensure the entire retail sector is focussed on providing shoppers with the information they need before they spend their money.”

Until then, the researchers recommend that supermarkets include all relevant mandatory labels to eligible products online and match their commitments to displaying HSRs on private-label products.

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