He called on food ministers, who have 60 days to decide whether to follow FSANZ’s advice, to “reject the label proposed by bureaucrats” and instead make the industry’s voluntary “DrinkWise” label mandatory.
Public health advocates have complained drinkers do not notice the DrinkWise label – which does not include a written warning and directs consumers to a website funded by the alcohol industry – due to its placement and design.
Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education director of policy and research Trish Hepworth welcomed the FSANZ decision, which she said had come after eight years of “obstruction” by the alcohol industry.
“This hugely significant step will help protect future generations of Australians,” Ms Hepworth said. “Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is a serious issue.”
Many women were still unaware of the risks of drinking during pregnancy, which could include fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, low birth weight, miscarriage and stillbirth, she said.
The latest official data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 showed 25 per cent of women consumed alcohol after becoming aware they were pregnant, while 49 per cent drank before finding out they were pregnant.
Ms Hepworth said the DrinkWise label was “woefully ineffective” and had “served only to mislead and confuse consumers”.
Alcohol manufacturers made almost 100 submissions to FSANZ arguing against its proposed warning label design.
FSANZ said it selected the statement that “alcohol can cause lifelong harm to your baby” on the basis of the available evidence, including World Health Organisation principles, stakeholder views and public health advice.
It opted not to proceed with its earlier proposed warning that “any amount of alcohol can harm your baby” due to a lack of scientific consensus about how much alcohol it takes to do harm, and the fact the label is not mandatory for drinks with less than 1.15 per cent alcohol content, such as kombucha. Its chosen wording was consistent with official public health advice “for pregnant women not to consume alcohol”.
In its written decision, FSANZ said the DrinkWise message had performed poorly in consumer testing of its effectiveness at explaining the consequences of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
“If the warning label is not noticed by consumers then it will not achieve its purpose of informing consumers not to drink alcohol during pregnancy,” FSANZ said. “Consumers do not look for warning labels, therefore they must be presented in a way that is likely to attract attention in order to achieve their purpose.”
Mr Wilsmore said the FSANZ’s decision to design its own label was “short-sighted” and would see costs passed on to consumers “for very little health gain”.
A final decision on the labelling will be made by the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, representing the Commonwealth, state and territory and New Zealand governments.
Comment has been sought from federal Food Minister Richard Colbeck and Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.