Researcher sees link between grocery competition and good health

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 7th October 2009

Attempts to improve the health of the nation may be limited by a lack of competition in the grocery sector, according to a new University of Queensland study.

Lead researcher Jon Wardle, of UQ’s School of Population Health, said the research – published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health – outlined the health consequences of a lack of competition on the affordability, access to, and choice of healthy foods, as well as a need for changes to current laws.

“Anything that negatively affects availability or access to healthy foods is going to have a serious impact on consumption of those foods,” Mr Wardle noted. “People generally want to eat healthier foods, but the current situation makes it harder for them to do so.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission completed an inquiry into the sector last year, suggesting the industry was “workably competitive”. This has not stopped continued questioning of the market power of the two major chains, however.

Mr Wardle said that people saw competition in the grocery sector merely from an economic standpoint, without factoring in the “enormous broader health and social consequences” that limited competition may create.

Improving access to healthy food was the key to the health situation but this may require changes to competition laws.

“We need to look at not just what people are eating, but how it’s getting to them in the first place. If we make it harder to access or afford good foods then obviously it’s going to be harder to get people to eat well,” Mr Wardle said.

“This situation is not the fault of the large retailers who are simply working within the current environment,” he added. “However, this research shows that there would be significant health benefits from changes to competition and planning legislation.”

The ACCC recently announced that Coles and Woolworths had agreed to get rid of restrictive shopping centre leases, a move welcomed as a good start by competitors. The Federal Government is also working toward creating creeping acquisition legislation.