Ministers have backtracked on plans by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) body to introduce new pregnancy risk warning labels on cans.
A forum of ministers met by video conference last week and ordered FSANZ to go back to the drawing board on the issue, saying the draft standard for pregnancy warning labels put an “unreasonable cost burden on industry”.
The forum acknowledged that since 2011 the alcohol industry had implemented a voluntary pregnancy warning labelling scheme.
It asked that FSANZ reconsider wording and colour requirements on the label over the next three months.
The alcohol industry has been campaigning against the recommended labels, with the IBA arguing it would cost the brewing industry an estimated $100 million over the next 10 years if forced through.
The decision has been welcomed by the already hard-hit alcohol industry, of which 100 members wrote in to argue against the proposed design.
In February FSANZ approved the warning labels which read “Alcohol can cause lifelong harm to your baby”, causing backlash from the industry.
WIthout the ministers decision, the labelling would have become a legal requirement for the industry.
The U-turn comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is heavily affecting breweries with venues.
Over in the US, a Brewers Association economist has suggested that packaged beer could be a lifeline for breweries in the short term to offset drops in on-premise sales, so now would be a ill-advised time to add extra costs to the industry which will already be feeling the effects of quarantines and lockdowns.
Reactions from industry
The mood in the industry is that it’s a small victory in a dark time.
Peter Philip, chair of the IBA said it woul have been a “difficult cost to bear”.
“Independent brewers have long been supporters of mandatory labelling, even introducing extensive guidelines for members. We only ask for a sensible approach that was proportionate to other mandated food warnings. We also ask they be cost-effective,” he said.
“Common sense has prevailed” according to Brett Heffernan at the Brewers Association, which represents Lion, Coopers and CUB.
“Mandating colours and wandering into health warning signals are simply over-reach by FSANZ. They are petty and punitive measures without practical purpose and have, quite rightly, been sent back for revision,” Heffernan said.
Andrew Wilsmore, CEO of Alcohol Beverages Australia, said that while the industry supports mandatory labelling, food authorities should be looking at a proportionate and cost-effective solution.
He said it would have cost the alcohol industry as a whole $400 million to implement, when FSANZ and the Department of health had already acknowledged that warning labels on alcohol do not lead to behavioural changes.
“The decision to review the label design and wording is sensible, especially as our industry, like so many others, is facing hardship in these uncertain times,” he said.
Anti-alcohol organisation the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) has been lobbying hard to have the warning labels implemented.
Responding to the announcement last Friday, FARE’s new CEO Caterina Giorgi said in a statement that the backtrack was due to “relentless pressure” from the alcohol industry “to keep the community in the dark about the health harms from alcohol use during pregnancy.”
Just last week, FARE commissioned a YouGov poll recently of 2,264 respondents aged 18 years and over, both men and women, and the organisation said that the sample “was boosted in smaller states/territories to ensure a minimum base size of 200 respondents.”
The majority (70%) of Australians said they support this change and would be willing to take action on the issue.
FARE shared the poll ahead of the meeting on Thursday in which Ministers scrapped the plans.