Food Ministers Forum reined in by Abbott government’s new approach

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 16th December 2013

A meeting of the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation (the Forum) has decided there needs to be a monitoring system to track the effectiveness of the proposed Front-of-Pack Labelling (FoPL) system for food.

The meeting, which was held in Melbourne on Friday 13 December, agreed to establish in early 2014 the Front-of-Pack labelling Oversight and Advisory Committee (Oversight Committee), with representation from industry, public health and consumers and government. The Oversight Committee will monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the Health Star Rating System over time.

Previously, the proposed star-rating system had received a policy go-ahead, but this was in June 2013, before the September election that saw the Abbott-led L-NP Coalition government elected.

Oversight Committee to develop process for addressing anomalies

The Forum also agreed that the Oversight Committee develop a process for addressing anomalies in the Health Star Rating System for consideration by the Forum at an out-of-session meeting as soon as possible. The refinements to the Health Star Rating Calculator (which is the algorithm that generates the star rating for food products) will address anomalies for some foods that would rate lower than they possibly ought, such as dairy foods.

The Federal Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona Nash, informed the Forum that she will direct the Department of Health to broaden the cost benefit analysis of the FoPL to included evidence-based research and extensive industry consultations in the absence of a Regulatory Impact Statement, which was not agreed to by the Forum. This will be designed to address the compliance that was noted by the Office of Best Practice and Regulation as well as the interests of New Zealand. The report will be provided to the Forum in June 2014.

The Star-rating system is still proceeding, but it will not be a carte blanche for that system’s operation. The Forum re-emphasised that the System will give consumers at-a-glance information about the food they are buying through a star rating scale of ½ to 5 stars for packaged food products in Australia.

FoodLegal comments

Commenting on the outcome of the Forum meeting, FoodLegal director Joe Lederman said, “The food ministerial forum which involves  a joint approach for all the Australian jurisdictions including all the six States and two mainland Territories as well as New Zealand, was the first one to be attended and chaired by a minister of the L-NP Coalition government led by Prime Minister Abbott”.

Mr Lederman said that “it would have been interesting to have been present to listen to Senator Fiona Nash advocating a new approach on some of the issues discussed at the Forum on this occasion”.

“Some of the very concepts involve new and additional  labelling obligations for food suppliers,” Mr Lederman said. “This would run against the grain of a government that has committed itself to greater de-regulation and to encourage expansion of what is clearly a shrinking Australian manufacturing base,” he said.

“The star-rating front-of-pack labelling system is opposed by some of Australia’s leading food manufacturers and may seem an anathema to a government that opposes what it might view as “nanny state” policies that direct Australians as to what they should eat,” Mr Lederman said.

New Zealand considering joining Health Star Rating System

New Zealand has stated that they are actively considering joining the Health Star Rating System and should be able to advise a decision, either way, intersessionally in the coming months.

Should New Zealand join the Health Star Rating System it was agreed in the Forum that they would have active membership on the Oversight Committee.

The Forum also discussed and resolved the policy guidelines for the approach of Australia’s food standards agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), in its role concerning public health and preventative health issues. The Forum also considered progress on pregnancy warnings on alcohol products.

Debate about Health Star Rating effectiveness

Debate about the effectiveness of the proposed Health Star Rating system increased in the lead-up to the Forum.

Consumer group CHOICE and public health groups such as the Obesity Coalition last week condemned what they said were “efforts by the food industry to undermine” the new FoPL system agreed to earlier in 2013.

CHOICE said research it conducted with consumers found that more than half those surveyed had never seen the existing industry-run Daily Intake Guide system, and “all consumers rated it as less useful and easy to understand than the new scheme”.

“We spent two years negotiating this new system with the food industry, represented by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC). The new system incorporates a number of concessions sought by the AFGC but now it has turned around and launched a fierce campaign against the very system it helped to develop,” said Alan Kirkland, CHOICE CEO.

“This research shows exactly why we need a new scheme to replace the flawed, industry-run Daily Intake Guide that currently appears on many food products,” Mr Kirk said. “Australians who have actually heard of the Daily Intake Guide – less than half of those surveyed – are likely to find it complex and misleading because it suggests that there is a daily intake of sugar, salt and saturated fat that people should be aiming for, when the best advice is to limit consumption,” he said.

“Despite it always being clear as part of the negotiations that the Daily Intake Guide had to go, the AFGC is now fighting to make it part of the new labelling system,” Mr Kirkland said.

Public health campaign group the Obesity Policy Coalition said FoPL such as the star-rating system “helps consumers sort the fat from the fiction”.

“It empowers consumers to compare the healthiness of products at a glance and cut through other claims and other promotions on the pack,” said Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition.

Health Star system “far from perfect”: AUSVEG

AUSVEG, the peak industry representative body for Australian vegetable and potato growers, also joined the debate, highlighting a number of flaws it perceives in the proposed system.

“The proposed Health Star rating system is far from perfect,” said Hugh Gurney, AUSVEG Spokesperson. “Currently almost no fresh vegetables qualify for the top, five-star rating, despite the countless scientific studies linking vegetables to better health,” he said.

AUSVEG said the current Daily Intake Guide had been “incredibly underwhelming” and that the star-rating system was “just as unlikely to do any better to change the behaviour of consumers”.

“If vegetables can’t even get a top score under this scheme then the system is flawed,” Mr Gurney said.

The proposed Health Star Rating system