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Label detective: Pregnancy warning labels on alcohol

The current law says it is voluntary to put pregnancy warning labels on alcohol, but this is going to change. Simpson Grierson food law specialists investigate what we can soon expect to see on our favourite tipple.

It’s a Friday night, and you are in the supermarket choosing a bottle of wine to take to dinner.

If you look closely at the packaging, you may notice some have a pregnancy warning label and some don’t. Some try to highlight to the consumer the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant, and others don’t say anything. But this is all about to change as pregnancy warning labelling will become mandatory on packaged alcoholic beverages soon.

What’s happening with the law?

Proposed Food Code changes mean we can expect to start seeing pregnancy warning labels becoming commonplace. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand are currently reviewing the existing evidence for what will best attract consumer attention with the design of warning labels.

The design is expected to include both a pictogram and statement reflecting government advice for pregnant women to not consume any alcohol. Design options are currently being consumer tested, with women of childbearing age a key target group. Another round of public consultation will commence in October 2019 to gather feedback on the chosen design and we can expect to see warnings on alcoholic beverages from April 2020.

Why the change?

The Australian and New Zealand Governments decided that the current law is not having enough of an impact. It is currently up to the alcohol companies whether they include warning labels or not, and while the overall labelling on wine, beer and cider products is encouraging, the uptake on mixed beverage products has been low.

This voluntary scheme is not consistent with the Government’s message that there is no safe level for alcohol consumption while pregnant. The proposed changes intend to raise awareness about the risks of consuming alcohol during pregnancy and may also even assist in creating the cultural and social norm that pregnant women do not consume alcohol.

There are many myths and claims out there that have confused consumers about whether it is safe to have a casual glass of your favourite alcoholic beverage while pregnant. Advice from the Health Promotion Agency (HPA), the crown advisory entity on community health and wellbeing, endorsed by the Ministry of Health, the Paediatric Society of New Zealand and other health agencies, is that any amount of alcohol consumed at any stage during a pregnancy can have an effect on an unborn child.

Frequent alcohol consumption can put an unborn child at risk of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and its lifelong effects. The advice is to stop drinking alcohol if you could be pregnant, are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant. This change in the Food code is an attempt to send a consistent message about alcohol consumption while pregnant and its potential detrimental effects, so there can be no consumer confusion.