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  • A tale of two labels: Australian Made Vs Health Star Rating

    • August 2, 2017
    • Neer Korn
    “Australians always talked about the importance of buying Australian products while simultaneously not doing so”

    A new label will soon become a familiar site in many supermarket aisles, informing consumers how Australian a product is. Consumers love the idea. Their appetite for supporting Australian growers and manufacturers has grown markedly these past few years. They may even be ready to put their money where their mouth is. So they are hopeful and enthusiastic about clear labelling that is easy to digest.

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    Before looking at the prospects of the Australian Made label let’s pause for a moment to consider another label that’s been a feature in quite a few supermarket aisles for the past three years – the government created Health Star Rating system, indicating how nutritious a product is relative to others in its category. Very few consumers rely on it, most ignore it and few understand how it works (or doesn’t work as the case may be).

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    Prior to its launch Australians were excited about a simple and trustworthy short-cut to making healthier choices. They find it difficult making sense of food labelling with most resorting to reading the mandatory contents list in the smallest font on the back of pack. The Health Star Rating has been, alas, a disappointment, and a missed opportunity. According to research published on the Health Star Rating’s own website) prompted awareness of the label is 61 percent; Unprompted the figure is a mere 14 percent. And it’s getting worse, not better, as the research report points out: “Significantly fewer respondents (compared to [the] September 2015 survey) reported that they view the Health Star Rating system as reliable or that it is easy to use.”

    There’s a few reasons for the Health Star Rating system not gaining traction. For one thing it hasn’t been explained to consumers. And while they might have noticed it, they haven’t taken much notice. “Oh, yeah, I think I’ve seen it,” is a common subdued response when asked about it. Not enough shoppers have worked out how the Health Star Rating system works and those that have do not find it a credible mechanism. “Have you seen their cereal?” said one of our group participants, “it was rated four and a half stars and it’s full of sugar.”

    Consumers seem to be resilient, however, and this negative experience of government labels has not dampened Australians’ enthusiasm for clear Australian Made labelling. Their adaptation of the global populist movement has been to batten down the hatches and prioritise the nation’s jobs, manufacturers and farmers, especially the farmers. Australians believe that their farms are being sold overseas and it makes them uncomfortable. And the closure of a manufacturing plants, impacting on entire towns, seem to be more common occurrences as they shift overseas where labour is cheaper.

    Beyond nationalism there is another powerful driver behind the support for Australian Made labelling, and that is fear. Their own experiences travelling in South East Asia along with occasional news stories has made them averse to foods, especially fish, which are imported from those countries, where quality control and processes are seen to be less regulated and sub-standard.

    Australians always talked about the importance of buying Australian products while simultaneously not doing so. Other criteria, price and quality primarily, have always been way ahead on their priorities list. (The exception being older Australians who have been willing to sacrifice in order to give back to the country). The ethos of most consumers until now has been that all things being equal they would choose an Australian made product and even pay a few cents more for it. Now they seem willing to sacrifice a little more even.

    The success of this program relies on its clarity. One reason consumers cite for not buying Australian is the complexity of figuring out what the label actually means. According to the Australian Made food labelling website this is precisely what they government has in mind. It states that Australians “want [the labels] to be clearer, more meaningful, and accurate. Up until now, country of origin labelling has often been unclear. It was hard to know the difference between descriptions like ‘made in’ and ‘product of.’” The new labels promise to be easier to understand and promises to tell consumers “at a glance” where their food is “grown, produced, made or packed.” The labels also indicates “what percentage of the ingredients come from Australia.”

    As with the Health Star Rating system the Australian Made label has a one important thing going for it. Being government run means it can be trusted. That may seem at odds with a population who are so vocally disdainful of politics and politicians. You can’t trust much today, especially when it comes to food and drink labelling, but Australians are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. They are taking a leap in accepting that those assigning the labels are independent and honest.

    The impact of the Australian Made labelling revolution is something we will monitor over the next couple of years. How much impact do you think it will have on consumers’ decision making?

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