Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Shoppers pay price for dodgy law

Nicole Idanna Alpert - The Lion Rock Institute Research Associate ( The Standard ~ Opinion , 2008.5.20)

How much harm can losing a few products because of mandatory nutritional labeling actually cause?

The supermarkets will still be stocked. Corner shops and wet markets will function much as they do today. And, whether consumers gloss over or ignore the information on the back of every product available, they will have to pay a bit extra for it.

It seems all is in order. Or is it?

Finding the products that you usually purchased absent is a small heartbreak for every grocery shopper.

Those in favor of mandatory food labeling cannot deny that a number of products will be missing after the law is passed.

I imagine the larger supermarkets like Great, 360 and CitySuper will find it more than easy to assuage the costs of the new food labeling with stickers and all, but wonder about the smaller shops.

The French specialty shop that just opened down the street will face huge financial obstacles when stuck with the costs of testing and stickering. Will it have to cut advertising in its budget or raise consumer prices to comply with the new mandatory labeling?

If those shops can't afford the new costs, we lose them and their special goods along with all the other products that retailers and manufactures will consider risks to continue to supply.

Huge criticism was made when the government eased its previous policy and proposed that it would extend the exemption to low-volume food products (30,000 units a year) with nutritional claims as long as stickers were placed on the products warning that it may not comply with Hong Kong's food labeling standards.

Might a consumer feel a bit insulted by this sticker hullabaloo? In reality, consumers interested in the nutritional aspects of products look at the packaging, and others ignore the stickers and hard-to-read small print.

If a consumer is satisfied with the information given, the product goes in the cart; if not, the product is back on the shelf.

Consumers vote with their purchases - products that are not wanted are not bought. It is consumer preference or demand that should remove unpopular products from the shelves, not food-labeling laws.

Choice is a top priority, and while fingers from Legco have been pointed at the industry, and it has been blamed for scaremongering and "duping" consumers, the truth remains that choice will inevitably diminish because of the new costs.

The frustration is understandable. It has been five years since the start of the food-labeling discussion and still a law is not yet in place. Having said that, legislation is not to be taken lightly and passing just anything is a horrible idea.

Health and choice are not mutually exclusive, and any food-labeling law adopted must illustrate that.

As an international city, Hong Kong should boast an ease of access and an enormous diversity of products from all over the world.

But when mandatory food labeling causes products to be shut out of the market and food choice to diminish, the legislation must be looked at again, even if it has been around for years.

The recent competition law inaccurately assumes consumers will be given more choice, but nonetheless emphasizes the importance of consumer benefit and choice.

On the other hand, mandatory food labeling emphasizes legislation that makes more choice more expensive. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

The popular political consensus is "do something, do anything" to get a law passed. Though those pushing for labeling laws have had to wait so long, this concept is both inappropriate for a city as developed and refined as Hong Kong, and irresponsible.

"Do anything" refers both to good and bad, so instead do something to improve the lot of consumers.

Well-researched, practical and measured legislation, regardless of the time it takes, will always trump passing "anything."

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