Australia’s proposed Front-of-Pack-Label scheme goes offline for now

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 10th February 2014
Australia’s proposed Front-of-Pack-Label scheme goes offline for now

Last week, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and consumer group CHOICE were celebrating the commencement of Australia’s star-ratings Front-of-Pack Labelling (FoPL) system following the launch of a Federal Health department-sponsored website to list the healthiness star-ratings of foods. However, the celebrations now appear to have been premature. The website, launched on Wednesday 5 February around midday, was taken down by 8pm that night.

Policy stoush

Speculation is mounting that there is a battle of wills going on behind the scenes amongst the food-policy-making fraternity, and that the talking has become quite heated.

Major industry groups have expressed concerns to the Federal government that the star-rating system, in its current state, will designate high-nutrient foods such as wholemilk or regular cheeses as “less healthy” than foods such as artificially sweetened soft drinks or vegetable-based snack foods.

A Federal Health Department spokesperson reportedly stated that the launching of the website was an “inadvertent error” and the website was still only a “draft”. However the accuracy of this claim has been disputed by some State Health Ministers and the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) CEO Michael Moore, who also acted as co-chair of the Technical Design Working Group developing the star-rating system.

On the same day that the website was launched before being taken down, the PHAA had issued a media release promoting the benefits that the website and the new ratings system would have for both consumers and food companies. Associate Professor Heather Yeatman, President of the PHAA, stated that it was a “major step toward making healthy choices the easy choices” and called on food companies to implement the system as quickly as possible.

Food Ministerial Forum Policy Shifts

The latest move follows some policy directional shifts that appear to have been instigated by the Federal government at a recent meeting of Federal and State ministers responsible for Australia’s food regulatory policies.

At its last meeting held on Friday 13 December 2013, the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation (the ‘Forum’), Australia’s ministers responsible for national food policy found that the agenda would now include the need for a monitoring system to track the effectiveness of the proposed Front-of-Pack Labelling system for food. Previously, the proposed star-rating system had received a policy go-ahead but that was in June 2013, which was before the September 2013 election that saw the Abbott-led L-NP Coalition government elected.

The 13 December 2013 meeting of the Forum was also told by its new Chairperson Senator Fiona Nash (National Party Senator for NSW) that there would need to be refinements to the Health Star Rating Calculator (which is the algorithm that generates the star rating for food products) to address initial technical issues with respect to dairy products in particular.

While the Forum endorsed the use of the Health Star Rating Calculator as part of the voluntary Health Star Rating System, the Forum did note that a process was still required to “deal with anomalies”.

Senator Nash, as Chairperson of the Forum in her role as the Assistant Minister for Health, informed the Forum that she would direct the Department of Health to prepare a new report that would broaden the cost benefit analysis of the FoPL to include evidence-based research and extensive industry consultations. Earlier the Forum had rejected a proposal for a full Regulatory Impact Statement. The proposed report being instigated by Senator Nash was also intended to allay compliance concerns expressed by the NZ government’s Office of Best Practice and Regulation as well as the interests of New Zealand generally. New Zealand has a large dairy export industry. This report was not due to be provided to the Forum until June 2014.

The Forum also agreed on membership and chairing arrangements for the tripartite Front-of-Pack Labelling Oversight and Advisory Committee (Oversight Committee) which would be established “in early 2014”, with representation from industry, public health and consumers, and government.

This Oversight Committee would have the role of monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of the Health Star Rating System over time.

Obviously, all of these steps would take time to be implemented. Both the Australian and New Zealand dairy industries would have wanted to be consulted and to have trialled the new system before the website was launched and the scheme implemented.

The launch of the website therefore seems to have been out-of-line with the 13 December 2013 Forum meeting outcome.

Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing in the Federal Health department? Or are some senior policy-making personnel at Federal and State levels at loggerheads on a number of key philosophical issues, let alone on the question of timing for implementation of the new FoPL scheme?