Australia ‘slipping’ on efforts to make foods healthier, research

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 3rd February 2014
Australia is 'slipping' on efforts to make foods healthier, according to The George Institute

Efforts to make foods healthier in Australia are failing, and foods continue to contain high amounts of fat, sugar and salt, according to researchers from the George Institute and the University of Sydney.

Professor Bruce Neal, from the George Institute and the University of Sydney, led a research team that evaluated the Federal Government’s Food and Health Dialogue and found it “wanting”.

“It has fantastic aims, but a very weak implementation plan,” Professor Neal said.

The evaluation, which was published 3 February 2014 in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that in the first four years of the Food and Health Dialogue, targets were set for just 11 out of a possible 124 action areas (8.9 per cent) and none had been delivered. Researchers said there was also no evidence that any of the proposed educational programs had been implemented.

The Food and Health Dialogue was launched by the Federal Government in mid-2009 to improve the nutritional profile of foods and help educate consumers about their diets.

“Poor diet is now an even bigger cause of ill health for Australia than smoking,” Professor Neal said. “Unfortunately, while the government has been doing a stellar job on tobacco control, it’s not doing quite so well in the food space,” he said.

“If we are to get on top of health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease we have to fully implement the Dialogue objectives,.” Professor Neal said. “The huge quantities of salt, sugar and fat added to the food supply by industry are now the main cause of ill health in the country, and the Dialogue is the only serious attempt to get on top of this,” he said

“Clearly this is a complex and ongoing process. Some companies have been making a real effort, but if you look at the big picture progress has been depressingly slow,” Professor Neal said.

Professor Rob Moodie, a co-author from the University of Melbourne, reinforced the urgent need for action.

“We need the Government to make this a priority,” Professor Moodie said. “And we have to find a way to strengthen a process that relies upon the voluntary engagement of industry. Powerful industry lobby groups like the Australian Food and Grocery Council are stifling action,” he said.

The authors compared the Dialogue to successful programs in the US and the UK and highlighted the need for “stronger leadership, transparency and regular reporting”.

Health activist group, The Obesity Policy Coalition, said that the UK program had shown that these types of initiatives can be effective.

“If we don’t want to be the first generation to outlive our children, then we need to get serious about improving diets, particularly in children,” said Jane Martin from the Obesity Policy Coalition. “We need meaningful targets, with sanctions for non-compliance and we need the government to take a strong stance and lead the way on this,” she said.

The evaluation is calling for more effective implementation, Professor Neal said, with three key groups of recommendations:

  • Rationalising of stakeholder roles – Government and public health groups must set the policies. The food industry must deliver them. Government needs to take a stronger leadership role, according to the researchers.

  • Clear targets and timelines, with consequences for non-achievement – i.e. enforcement if voluntary measures fail to deliver. Currently, the researchers said, business incentives all push for the addition of more salt, fat and sugar in order to maximise profit.

  • Better transparency and reporting – the successes and failures of individual industry players need to be highlighted, with easy community access to information that will empower consumer choices.