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  • 2003.07.15

Council calls for early implementation of mandatory nutrition labelling

The Government is urged to implement mandatory nutrition labelling for all prepackaged food products as early as possible.

The call was made by the Consumer Council in the light of its latest test findings on the fibre contents of cereal products and the calcium and fat contents of milk products. Earlier, the Council conducted a similar test on the fibre contents of breads and biscuits.

In its studies, the Council has found the nutritional information, where it exists, to be far from comprehensive and standardised to facilitate comparison and choice of food products.

The Government has proposed to implement a mandatory labelling scheme on nutrition information by phases for prepackaged food. In the initial phase, food products carrying nutrition or function claims should provide nutrition labelling in accordance with legislative requirements.

For food products without claims, nutrition labelling may be provided; however, if provided, the nutrition labelling should still be in accordance with legislative requirements. After 5 to 10 years, the second phase would be implemented and all prepackaged food would be required to provide nutrition labelling.

The Council, however, believes that the process can be speeded up for the necessary new regulations to be put into implementation sooner.

It notes that similar regulation on mandatory nutrition labelling already exists in some countries and therefore should pose no problem for food producers, both local and transnational, to comply with such requirements.

There is no reason why consumers should continue to tolerate a lower nutrition labelling standard for many more years to come.

The Council is particularly concerned of the lack of a Hong Kong standard governing claims to be made on nutrient contents of prepackaged food.

There is, for instance, no clear legal definition of terms used in nutrient content claims such "high", "low" and "free" or in comparative claims such as "reduced", "more" and "less" when referring to a particular nutrient. Consumers have no choice but be "guided" by producers' advertising puff.

In this July issue of CHOICE were published the results of the test on 28 samples of cereal products (instant hot cereals, muesli, flakes, whole wheat products and cereals for babies and infants) and 10 samples of milk products (fresh milk, skimmed milk drink and low fat milk).

The test revealed that some brands with high fibre claims contained lower fibre content than a product without such claim. Milk products with high calcium claims varied by 45.5% from 345 mg to 502 mg per cup of 240 ml.

Not only must the definition of terms be standardized, the Council sees a need to define the reference amount or serving size which local people usually consume upon which nutritional claims are made. The label should indicate the number of servings in each consumer package.

The standardization of these two areas will go a long way to provide guidelines for all food producers to follow, and comprehensive information for consumers to understand.

On cereal products, the test found the samples to vary over a wide range in fibre contents. For example, the total fibre contents of sweetened hot cereal ranged from 1.30 grams to 4.78 grams per serving.

The unit price per gram of total fibre also varied from $0.26 to $7.28, with the instant cereal samples among the lowest while the flakes and pops the highest. In other words, instant cereals offer better value for money in terms of fibre content.

In general, consumers are advised to consult the test results and choose cereal products that are high in fibre and low in price.

Parents are advised to take note that as the fibre contents of flakes and pops are very low, and that such products usually have children as their targets, they should ensure to let their children take in fibre from other sources such as fruit and vegetables.

In addition, the test found the presence of sugar in these food products, the amount of which consumers may not be aware, to be rather high in 10 of the samples with sugar contents of over 20 grams per serving.

Considerable discrepancies were found between the claimed content and actual amount of ingredients found in the products. In the case of sugar, one baby cereal had 87% more sugar, while other wheat products had 25% more. The problem is more acute with big discrepancy on sugar contents for dietary reasons.

On milk products, the test affirmed that in general, the calcium contents and fat contents of milk products followed their claims quite closely. Also skimmed samples were lower in fat contents than "low fat" samples while both types were lower in fat contents than fresh milk.

Overall, milk products are rich in calcium contents. The consumption of 1 or 2 cups of any of the milk products included in the test should offer a high proportion of the daily requirement of 1,000 mg.

Consumers are advised to choose samples with lower fat contents to avoid taking in too much fat while replenishing calcium for the body.    

First ever laboratory test and user trial on jogging shoes

Choosing the right sports shoes is not just about finding a colour and style you like. The wrong pair could sometimes do more harm than good.

For the first time, the Consumer Council has joined hands with its counterparts in Europe in a test on jogging shoes. The test was conducted in France under the co-ordination of the International Consumer Research and Testing.

Included in the test were 23 pairs of jogging shoes available in the Hong Kong market mostly in the price bracket between $500 and $700 a pair.

Results of the test are a real eye-opener to consumers who take their jogging or running seriously.

The samples were first subjected to rigorous laboratory tests, designed to simulate hours of training, to assess their durability and comfort.

In durability tests covering various parts of the shoe (the upper part, shoe laces and eyelets, the soles), the shoe was flexed many thousands of times to see whether it split or tore. Force was also exerted to tear the uppers and to separate different parts of the shoe.

To evaluate comfort, the suppleness, shock absorption, sweat absorption of the insole, and slip resistance (how well it performs on wet surface) of the shoe were measured.

In addition, besides laboratory tests, the samples were put through user-trials (by 3 runners who ran a distance of 150 km to try out the shoes), under the expert guidance of specialist assessors.

The runners then gave their assessment on: fitness, breathability and sweat absorption, biomechanical comfort and ease of use.

The shoes were rated by a scale of 1-5 points with the weighting: durability (30%), comfort (40%) and user opinions (30%). The results ranged from the highest score of 4.13 points to 2.00 at the end of the scale.

Overall, the test showed that many of the models scored well, with different models possessing different characteristics for the choice of individual consumers.

A well-fitted and comfortable shoe is fundamentally important as everyone has his or her own running style and physical characteristics. So do take the time to try out different models until you find the right fit.

The experts have this simple 4S rule for consumers to follow: foot Size, foot Shape, Style of the shoe and Specific usage of the shoe.

A special Hong Kong product, the white canvas shoe (known locally as pak-fan-yu) inexpensive and much favoured by the locals for all sports purposes, has also gained international attention in this test at the request of the Consumer Council.

Experts from various fields, including a biomechanics, a physician, and a semi-professional runner gave their verdict: white canvas shoes are very supple, but they are weak in shock absorption and stability. Hence, they can be used for occasional sports, exercise or leisure walking - running on grass or earthy road is acceptable.   

Preservatives in cosmetic products come under test for safety

The Consumer Council has given a clean bill of health to a whole array of cosmetic products for men and women.

This followed a test to evaluate the extent of preservatives that may be present in these cosmetics - facial masks, toners, lotions, moisturisers, gels, hand cream, body milk, and after shave lotions.

The test focused on 4 preservatives, namely, formaldehyde, salicylic acid, benzoic acid and sorbic acid.

The proper use of preservatives in cosmetics is in fact a matter of necessity in order to inhibit the growth of micro-organisms and prevent skin or eye infection to the users.

It is only when used excessively in high concentration that they become undesirable, causing potential side effects detrimental to health.

Out of this concern, the Council has conducted a test on a total 51 samples of cosmetic products sourced from retailers and beauty parlour product suppliers, which are commonly in use by consumers of both genders.

In the test, 20 of the samples were detected to contain preservatives of one kind and/or another: formaldehyde (10 samples), salicylic acid (7), benzoic acid (5) and sorbic acid (1). But none was in excess of the safety limits stipulated in both European and Chinese standards for cosmetic products.

The rest of the 31 samples were not detected of any of the preservatives. These included the 5 samples which made specific claims of "No preservatives used".

On cosmetics found with the preservative salicylic acid, the Chinese standard requires such products to be labelled with the warning: "Not to be used on children under 3 years of age". 3 samples containing the preservative bore no such warning.

Further, the Customs and Excise Department recommends that any cosmetic product containing 5,000 ppm of salicylic acid should carry specific warnings including: "Application of salicylic acid preparation to skin may cause dermatitis. Prolong use of salicylic acid over large area of body, or on inflamed or broken skin or by pregnancy should be avoided".

The 1 sample found with 5,000 ppm of salicylic acid was without the required warnings; instead it carried the warning: "Keep out of reach of children".

Consumers are advised to observe good hygiene in the use of cosmetic products, beginning at the time of the purchase whether the products are tightly packed or there is any colour, odour or texture change.  

Anti-perspirants and deodorants

Meanwhile, with temperature rising to over 30°C, the Consumer Council has conducted a survey on the labelling of anti-perspirants and deodorants.

Of the 36 samples of anti-perspirants surveyed, 30 were listed with active ingredients on their labels, with most of them aluminium chlorohydrate.

6 samples, however, bore no such label. Manufacturers are urged to provide the ingredient list for the information of consumers.

Consumers are also advised to be wary of the presence of aluminium zirconium compounds in aerosol-can anti-perspirants. The hazard is when used in aerosol form, some zirconium will reach the deep portions of the lungs of users.

These chemicals, according to the US FDA, have caused human skin granulomas (a mass of granulation tissue produced in response to chronic infection) and toxic effects in the lungs and other organs of experimental animals.

They are banned for use in aerosol anti-perspirant products in the US and European Community. In the survey, no aluminium zirconium compounds were found listed as active ingredient on the labels.

Of the 12 deodorants surveyed, 3 carried no ingredient list, 9 contained fragrance and 2 had triclosan (which kills off bacteria before they break down the sweat into its smelly constituent).

It should be noted that a deodorant is not an anti-perspirant, but an anti-perspirant is automatically a deodorant.

One of the samples in aerosol form was found without the safe storage warning in accordance with the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department's guidance note for aerosol products. 8 others in aerosol cans had part of the warning in English only.

For the non-aerosol anti-perspirant samples, 12 carried bilingual (Chinese and English) safety warnings, 7 were without, 5 had warnings in only one language.  

Price freeze on school textbooks but increases on supplementary materials

The price freeze on primary and secondary school textbooks remained for this year.

This was borne out in the annual textbook price survey of the Consumer Council covering 287 primary and 343 secondary school textbooks.

While textbooks remained unchanged in price, this was not the case with supplementary materials such as workbooks, worksheets, grammar books, storybooks, dictionaries, atlas, etc.

Increases of 0.2% and 1.8% were recorded in the Council's survey on 315 primary and 137 secondary school supplementary materials respectively.

In light of the findings, the Education and Manpower Bureau has appealed to schools to refrain from using workbooks and exercises in excessive quantity.

Schools are advised to mark reference materials with "for reference only" on the textbook list so that parents and students already in possession of similar materials can decide whether or not to buy the items.

To enable better use of resources, some copies of reference materials can be put in the classrooms or school library for the use of students. Storybooks can be used on a rotational basis and the costs shared among the students.   

More test results on digital cameras

Published in this July issue of CHOICE were the latest test results on 14 models of digital cameras. The test is part of a series undertaken by the Consumer Council to assist consumers in the choice of this new favourite in camera technology.

Of particular interest in the test this month was the inclusion amongst the samples 3 digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras, which are favoured by serious amateur and professional photographers alike.

The main advantages of SLR cameras are that interchangeable lenses can be used and many manual controls or settings are easily and directly assessable. Usually, users may still use their existing lenses that are compatible with the camera of the same brand.

For some digital SLR cameras, since the size of the image sensor is smaller than the traditional film format, the angle of coverage of the lens will be narrower than taking photos on traditional film.

Overall, the picture quality of all samples are satisfactory but consumers will note in the report a number of findings of useful reference in their selection:

  • In general, it is held true that the higher the pixels, the better the picture quality it will be. The output resolution of the samples ranged from 1.9 to 6.1 million pixels. It was found that higher pixels do not necessarily produce higher quality pictures.
  • Not all samples had good flash performance.
  • Versatility and ease of use differed significantly from model to model.
  • Some samples scored low because of the longer shutter delay when taking pictures.
  • Another weakness is the speed of sequential shot. Many samples scored low because of the slow process of writing to the external memory card. Some samples attained high speed initially for a few shots but were unable to sustain continuous high speed for more shots.

Chairing the press conference today (July 15) on the publication of CHOICE issue number 321 is Prof. CHING Pak-chung, Vice-Chairman of Publicity and Community Relations Committee of the Consumer Council.