Major supermarkets’ “huge gap” in online food labelling

Coles and Woolworth have been found to have a “huge gap” in the labelling of their products sold in their online stores.

A study of more than 22,000 products from the online stores of the two leading supermarket retailers found almost all lacked at least some crucial product information, including ingredient lists and allergy warnings.  

Food Standards Australia New Zealand require Nutrition Information Panels (NIPs), ingredient lists, and allergen declarations on product packaging in physical stores; however, online stores are not explicitly obligated to meet any labelling standards. Health Star Ratings (HSRs), which aim to provide a quick and easy summary of product healthiness, can also be voluntarily displayed.

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 and Health, said their findings highlight the need to strengthen labelling requirements for the online retail food environment.

“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.”

Damian Maganja, lead author of the study and a PhD Candidate in food policy at the at The George Institute for Global Health and UNSW Medicine and Health, said traditionally shoppers could simply pick up a product to find relevant information.

“It’s not surprising to see a huge gap in how the major supermarkets provide product information in their online grocery stores, which might not be deliberate or malicious but does fail to help people with choosing products that meet their dietary or health needs.”

The study, which analysed the food products available online from the two leading supermarket retailers in Australia from April–May 2022, found that only around half of all food products had allergen labelling (53 per cent) and NIPs (49 per cent), while just over a third (34 per cent) had ingredients listed.

HSRs were infrequently displayed, appearing on just 14 per cent of products across both supermarkets overall. They 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.

However, country-of-origin labelling was comprehensive, appearing on 93 per cent of food product pages, despite being a more recent requirement.

Maganja said that 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.

“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.”

The researchers say the most effective way to ensure progress in food labelling practices online would be to explicitly extend the regulations that govern physical products to all online retailers that sell food products.

“If food labelling online is optional, it will vary considerably at best. While both major supermarkets can do better on their own, consistent and explicit government-mandated standards will better ensure the entire retail sector is focused on providing shoppers with the information they need before they spend their money.”

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