Many vegetables fail on Australia’s Health Star Rating system

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 16th July 2014
Health Star Rating System ‘shuns’ vegetables, AusVeg
Health Star Rating System ‘shuns’ vegetables, AusVeg

Vegetable industry body AusVeg has said it is “appalled” at the number of vegetables that do not receive a full rating under the new voluntary Health Star Rating System, which is to be rolled out in the coming months.

Out of 20 vegetables tested by AusVeg using the official Health Star Rating Calculator, only 10 receive a five-star rating, with the remaining half only achieving four and a half stars. According to AusVeg, vegetables such as celery, lettuce and pumpkin failed to meet the criteria for a five-star rating, despite their widely verified health benefits.

Australian Food News reported in June 2014 that Australian food ministers had signed off on the Health Star Rating system. The voluntary Health Star Rating System is has been designed to make healthy eating choices easier for Australian consumers when purchasing groceries.

“We are extremely disappointed that not all vegetables are eligible for a five-star rating under the new front-of-pack labelling system,” said Andrew White, AusVeg Manager of Government and Parliamentary Relations.

“Science has confirmed the myriad of health benefits provided by a vegetable-rich diet, so to exclude some of them from receiving a five-star rating is sending the wrong message to Australian consumers about what they should really put on their plates,” he said.

“AusVeg fails to see how the system would encourage consumers to purchase fresh vegetables, when it deems that celery – which provides a mere 64 kJ of energy per 100g serving – receives a four and a half star rating,” Mr White said. “Front-of-pack labelling policy should be well thought-out and backed by common sense,” he said.

Mr White said the current Percentage of Daily Intake system and the new Health Star Rating system both fail to consider the role of phytonutrients in vegetables, many of which have been linked to the prevention of several health conditions and disorders.

“Research has demonstrated that vegetables are rich in chemicals that can help to fight conditions like cardiovascular disease and cancer,” Mr White said. “These benefits should be closely considered when developing rating systems for individual vegetables,” he said.

“With obesity on the rise amongst Australians, it is important that we convey good health messages,” Mr White said. “Awarding vegetables an automatic five stars would allow consumers to more easily determine what foods are best for them,” he said.

Health Star Rating debate

The effectiveness of the Health Star rating system, which was developed by food and beverage industry bodies, public health and consumer experts, has been the subject of an ongoing debate.

The Health Star Rating scheme was initially signed off by Federal, State and Territory food and health ministers in June 2013 and was expected to be implemented under a voluntary code run by the grocery industry body the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

However, implementation of the system has not been smooth sailing. In February 2014, Australian Food News reported that CHOICE had used the system to rate popular supermarket products after a Federal Health Department-sponsored website to list the Health Star Ratings of foods was taken offline on the day of its launch.  In the days that followed, Alastair Furnival, Chief of Staff to Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash resigned, after it was revealed he held shares in Australian Public Affairs (APA), a lobby group whose clients include Cadbury, Kraft and the Australian Beverages Council. Senator Nash denied that Mr Furnival’s links to presented a conflict of interest.

In March 2014, Australian Food News reported that consumer group CHOICE had also used the Health Star system to rate popular lunchbox food products.

In light of the debate about the effectiveness of the system, a meeting of the Legislative and Governance Forum of Food Regulation which took place in Sydney in late June 2014 considered several changes to the way the system would be implemented. The Forum consists of all Australian and New Zealand Ministers responsible for food regulation and is chaired by the Australian Government Assistant Minister for Health, Senator the Honorable Fiona Nash.

The Forum agreed at the meeting in June 2014 that the Health Star Rating system should be implemented voluntarily over the next five years with a review of the progress of implementation after two years with a commencement date of 27 June 2014. The Forum said the implementation time-frame had been extended to enable cost effective implementation and the potential for food reformulation and consultation with small and medium sized enterprises.

Assistance for food companies wanting to implement Health Star ratings

Food and beverage companies hoping to implement the Health Star Rating system are encouraged to attend the upcoming FoodLegal Symposium, co-sponsored by Monash University and Australian Food News. At the Symposium, food law expert and consultant Charles Fisher will be talking about the opportunities for food and beverage companies in the new Health Star Rating system. Find out more here.