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Star dawns on new food rating system

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The Federal Government has reinstated the Health Star Rating System website taken down by Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash in controversial circumstances earlier this year.

More than 10 months after it was first launched the website, which details a new front-of-packet rating system for packaged food, has been re-published as part of a broader effort to tackle the nation’s burgeoning weight problem.

Under the system, developed following two years of intensive consultation between the AMA, food manufacturers, consumer groups and regulators, food will be allocated a rating of between one and five stars, and a panel will detail how much saturated fat, sugar, sodium and energy it contains.

AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis said that, by providing consumers with a simple ‘at a glance’ guide to the nutritional value of a food, the system would be an important tool in helping Australian make better choices about what they ate.

“The healthier the food, the higher the number of stars it will have on the label,” Dr Parnis said.

The nation’s governments approved the new system last year amid increasingly alarm at the size of the country’s weight problem. In 2011-12, 63 per cent of adults, and 26 per cent of children, were considered to be overweight or obese.

In February, Senator Nash dramatically intervened to have the Health Star Rating website taken down within hours of being launched, claiming its publication was “premature”.

It was later revealed that the Minister’s Chief of Staff at the time, Alistair Furnival, who had directed Health Department staff to take down the website, co-owned a consultancy that had major food manufacturers among its clients. Following the disclosure, he was forced to resign.

Earlier, Senator Nash had delayed the introduction of the system, arguing in the forum of the nation’s food ministers that the system should first be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

In a report presented to the ministerial forum in June, consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the $60 million it would cost industry and government to implement the scheme in the next five years would be more than offset if the expansion of the nation’s waistline slowed by just 0.04 per cent a year – meaning that after five years there would be 7565 fewer people overweight or obese than would otherwise be the case.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report concluded that “there is clear evidence that interpretive front-of-pack labelling schemes like the HSR system are an effective tool to assist consumers to make healthier food choices”.

“In PwC’s view…the aggregate benefits of the HSR system, in the context of multiple public health initiatives, will pay back aggregate costs over [a] five year implementation period,” it said.

Dr Parnis said improving food choices needed to be only one part of a broader national strategy to reduce the incidence of overweight and obesity and improve the nation’s health.

The AMA Vice President said there also needed to be stricter controls on the marketing of unhealthy food to children and changes in urban design to encourage greater physical activity.

Under current arrangements, food firms have five years to voluntarily adopt the system and display the star ratings on their packaging.

Dr Parnis said he hoped that the scheme would encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products and make them more nutritious in order to earn more stars.

After being initially supportive of the scheme, the food industry has for the past 12 months sought to change it, complaining that the formula used to determine a food’s star rating is flawed.

But several food companies, including Woolworths and Sanitarium, have announced that they will adopt the HSR across their entire range of products.

Dr Parnis said the system was good, and warned those who resisted it might find themselves with no choice.

“The AMA would support the Government making the system mandatory for any sections of the food industry that have failed to adopt this labelling approach in five years,” he said.

The Health Star Rating System website can be viewed at:

http://www.healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/content/home

Adrian Rollins

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