Holmes – labelling on food packages – false nutrition advice – inaccurate
Standard G1 – not inaccurate – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
During the course of a discussion about providing nutritional information on packaged foods, the presenter described saturated fats as "killer fats". Her comment came during a Holmes item broadcast on TV One on 19 October 2000 beginning at 7.00pm.
Valerie James complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the presenter had provided false nutritional advice when she warned that saturated fats were harmful.
TVNZ emphasised that the item had been concerned with what information customers wanted to find on packaged foods, rather than with whether saturated fats were harmful. It accepted that there was another view which challenged the popularly-held view about saturated fats, but emphasised that this item was not the appropriate occasion to enter that debate. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mrs James referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
A Holmes item dealing with consumer preferences for the labelling of food was broadcast on TV One on 19 October 2000 beginning at 7.00pm. During the course of the discussion, the presenter remarked that saturated fats were harmful.
Valerie James complained to TVNZ that it was not correct to state that saturated fats were harmful, and pointed to medical evidence that, for most of the normal population, reducing cholesterol intake by avoiding saturated fats was not only unnecessary but had adverse consequences.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standard G1 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. That standard requires broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
The item, TVNZ noted, looked at the nutritional information available on packaged foods and asked why, under new regulations, it still would not be compulsory to list all ingredients – such as saturated fats – about which people had concerns. The item canvassed views of supermarket shoppers about their preferences for package labelling, and then proceeded to a studio debate involving Dr Boyd Swinburn of the Heart Foundation, Mr Jim Richards of Sanitarium and Mr Ian Lindenmayer of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority.
In TVNZ’s view, the item was concerned with the information which consumers wanted to find on packaged foods rather than with whether or not saturated fats were harmful to their health. It emphasised that the story was concerned with why it was not going to be compulsory to list information sought by the public, including the Heart Foundation, on packaged food.
The presenter’s comments, TVNZ continued, reflected the widespread perception that saturated fats were harmful. While it accepted that there was a scientific view that challenged the widely-held view about saturated fats, this item was not the appropriate occasion to enter that debate, it argued. It said it did not accept that the item breached standard G1. TVNZ wrote:
Phrases such as "the fat that causes heart attacks" and "the killer fat" used by the presenter, and Dr Swinburn’s assertion that it is "time to have it (saturated fat) on labels" accurately reflected the public perception around which this item was built.
In a further letter to TVNZ, Mrs James maintained that TVNZ had misinterpreted her complaint and that her only objection to the item related to the presenter’s editorial comment that saturated fats were harmful. She also objected to the manner in which TVNZ had dealt with her complaint, arguing that it should have been dealt with informally. She suggested that an appropriate resolution could be reached with TVNZ if it took a more cooperative approach to dealing with her complaint. Mrs James also complained that TVNZ had failed to consider her complaint as a breach of the Act’s provision in s.4(1)(d) relating to balance. She asked TVNZ to reconsider it.
As TVNZ did not respond further, Mrs James referred the complaint to the Authority. She said that as far as she could interpret TVNZ’s response to her, the complaint had not been upheld
…on the grounds that the public has a right to have their perceptions, which arise from widespread publicity, reinforced by the presenter of a public broadcast.
Mrs James said that from her perspective, the media had a responsibility to challenge public prejudices if they arose from propaganda and did not properly reflect the facts of the matter. Under the Bill of Rights Act, she said, viewers had a right to receive information. She rejected TVNZ’s defence that there was no breach of standards because the item was about what information customers wanted to find on packaged food and not a medical/scientific debate on the impact of saturated fats on health. Mrs James provided extracts from scientific publications which supported her argument that the debate about saturated fats was ongoing.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ first dealt with Mrs James’s concern that her complaint should have been dealt with informally rather than being accepted at once as a formal complaint. TVNZ explained that its policy was to treat as formal complaints all letters which referred to the Broadcasting Act or which contained material which suggested it should be considered by a properly constituted complaints process. Only those complaints which had been considered formally were able to be referred to the Broadcasting Standards Authority for review, it noted.
Turning to the substance of the complaint, TVNZ said that it did not consider it fair or just to look at the presenter’s statement in isolation. It noted that concern about saturated fats had been expressed by Dr Boyd Swinburn of the Heart Foundation and it was clear that not only the Heart Foundation but representatives of the food industry recognised that consumers wanted nutrition panels on food packages to include reference to saturated fats. TVNZ wrote:
We do not accept that a broadcaster is obliged to ignore what a significant proportion of the population wishes to find on the nutrition panels attached to food just because some scientists regard the attention given to saturated fats to be over-stated or simply wrong. We suggest that anyone who has dealt with doctors or read through health material in doctors’ or specialists’ waiting rooms will be fully aware of the advice to steer away from saturated fats.
TVNZ emphasised that the item was not about whether saturated fats were harmful. It was a debate about whether information about saturated fats should be included on nutrition panels on food sold in New Zealand.
With her final comment, Mrs James enclosed copies of the dictionary definitions of "saturated" and of "cholesterol", and a label from a package which described why it was important for consumers to choose foods wisely.
Mrs James said that she accepted TVNZ’s argument that the item was not a scientific debate, but was about what information should be included on nutrition panels on food. She reiterated that her complaint was about the presenter’s characterisation of a food item as being "bad". She added:
The purpose of label information is to give individuals information to help them make their own choices according to their needs but not to praise or condemn an ingredient.
Mrs James concluded by stating that the broadcaster was responsible for ensuring that the programme was true "both in whole and in part". She said that part of the item was not true and not balanced.
The subject of this item was food labelling. It was reported that food manufacturers would soon be required by law to show nutritional information on their products. However, as a result of lobbying by some manufacturers, there would be no requirement to include the presence of saturated fats. The presenter questioned whether this was fair to consumers and whether food manufacturers were conspiring against consumers by denying them important information. It was in this context that the presenter described saturated fats as "killer fats".
In describing saturated fats as "killer fats", the Authority considers that the presenter was reflecting a popularly-held view – and one apparently shared by the Heart Foundation – that saturated fats are, in general, harmful to health and should be minimised.
The Authority acknowledges the reports provided by Mrs James which suggest that there is some scientific evidence to challenge the view that saturated fats cause harm in the diet. However, the context of the item was food labelling and the wish of consumers to identify the presence of saturated fats in foods. With that context in mind, the Authority finds that the presenter’s comments were not inaccurate, and reflected a widely-held view among consumers. Further, the Authority notes, her comments arose in the presence of an expert panel, none of whom challenged her perception of saturated fats as being harmful.
In reaching its decision on this complaint, the Authority finds the matters raised to be somewhat inconsequential and even pedantic. It advises the complainant of its powers under s.11 of the Broadcasting Act to decline to determine a complaint in certain circumstances. In that context, it considers this complaint is borderline.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 December 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: