Concerns over the legibility of nutrition labels have led to a joint study between the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) and Hong Kong’s Consumer Council recently.
The joint study seeks to assess how closely traders have followed the recommendations set out in the Trade Guidelines on Preparation of Legible Food Label (Trade Guidelines), issued by the CFS in 2012.
The Food and Drug (Composition and Labelling) Regulations stipulate that, unless otherwise exempted, prepackaged food shall be legibly marked and labeled with a list of required nutrients.
The study focused on samples of relatively small-size pre-packaged food and drink products including biscuits and crispy snacks, canned luncheon meats and canned sardines, breads and cakes, yoghurts and milk, non-alcoholic and milk beverages.
“A significant amount of products did not provide nutrition labels in accordance with the guidelines,” the CFS concluded.
CFS principal medical officer Samuel Yeung Tze-kiu urged the industry to address this issue and said the body is not ruling out the possibility of legislating the guidelines if it is not done voluntarily.
"We want the consumers to read the information they need when they want to," he said.
Out of a total of 100 samples, as many as 63 were judged to be unsatisfactory by failing to conform to the legibility recommendations of the Trade Guidelines, with most 51 of these falling short of the size requirements of the letters or characters on the labels.
The Trade Guidelines recommend, for English letters, a font size of at least 1.2mm in height, based on the lower case of the letter x. This goes down to at least 0.8mm for small packages with a total surface area of less than 400sq-cm, and for packages that use more than one language on the label. Chinese characters should be printed at a size comparable to English, or at least 1.8 mm in height.
In one extreme case, from a sample of Four Seas Biscuit Sticks, the English letters were measured at a height of barely 0.48mm—with Chinese characters at 0.91mm. This, the researchers found, was virtually impossible to read without the use of a magnifying glass.
Besides font sizes, which were measured by the CFS Food Research Laboratory, the labels were also evaluated by a CFS assessment panel on other key elements of legibility requirements, such as decent contrast and sufficient spacing, as well as quality printing and the use of non-reflective surface.
The problem of legibility was most serious in the case of 31 nutrition stickers. Although not covered in the Trade Guidelines, the position of a label may also affect the ease of reference.
The findings of the study corresponded closely with those of an 18-member panel of consumers enlisted to give their perspectives and comments on the labels. Out of 82 samples assessed by the consumer panel, 51 were considered by the majority of members to be in need of improvement, particularly based on their font sizes.
“The food industry is strongly urged to follow the Trade Guidelines, and where space is available, to enhance legibility by printing larger nutrition labels to facilitate consumers, especially those with weaker eyesight, in reading and benefiting from the information to make informed choices,” the Consumer Council said in a statement.