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Company takes monster lead in better food labelling

- Featured Image

A family-owned breakfast cereal company has become the first food manufacturer to embrace the Food Health Star Rating system, undermining industry complaints the regime is confusing and too costly to implement.

Monster Health Food Company said it cost little more than $4000 to redesign packaging for seven products to comply with the code, which has been endorsed by the nation’s Health Ministers, but whose website was controversially taken down under instruction from Federal Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash – an action that ultimately cost the job of her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival.

Monster Health Food said it had embraced the new labelling system as a way to help time-poor consumers quickly compare products and make informed choices based on nutrition information.

“We have been honest and transparent about our products for 21 years,” said Monster Health Food co-owner Trevor Lauman. “The Health Star Rating is about delivering honesty and transparency to consumers about products, so we wholeheartedly support it.”

But the scheme, which was formally endorsed by Australian and New Zealand food ministers late last year following an exhaustive two-year development process involving extensive consultation between health, industry and consumer groups including the AMA, has since become mired in controversy.

Soon after the scheme was unveiled in mid-2013 industry groups began to backtrack from their support, complaining that it would cost the sector $200 million to implement, and would result in ratings that would confuse consumers.

Then, in a sensational development, Senator Nash intervened in early February to direct the Health Department to take down the Health Star Rating website soon after it went live.

It was subsequently revealed that the Minister took the decision just hours after peak industry body the Australian Food and Grocery Council contacted the Minister’s office to voice its concerns about the website, which it considered “premature”.

At the time, Senator Nash said the website was only a draft, and that it had been made public inadvertently.

But The Australian has obtained documents showing that a Health Department official had prepared a briefing for the Minister more than a week earlier informing her of plans to make the website live on 30 January, saying it would be “an important information resource for industry, and will house key technical documents about how to apply the HSR System to its packaged food products”.

The Minister’s intervention to have the website taken down ultimately cost the job of her chief of staff after it was revealed he retained an interest in a lobbying firm that had had major food manufacturers among its clients.

The website is not expected to be reinstated until after the nation’s food ministers meet in June and a cost-benefit analysis by the Department of Health is completed.

But the AMA is among groups who have expressed disappointment and frustration at what they see as spoiling tactics by the food industry to delay the introduction of the system, which they believe will help consumers make better food choices.

Mr Lauman said there was mounting consumer scepticism about food claims such as ‘99 per cent fat-free’, and the rating system provided an honest snapshot of what products contain.

Using the health star calculator available briefly on the website before it was pulled, the company determined its Berry Muesli qualified for four stars out of five (a result verified by consumer group Choice), and the accompanying information panel indicates that every 100 grams contains 1.3 grams of saturated fat, 18 milligrams of sodium, 17.9 grams of sugar, 6.8 grams of fibre and 1530 kilojoules of energy.

The first products bearing the new labelling began appearing on supermarket shelves just before Easter, and Mr Lauman said he hoped other food manufacturers would soon follow suit.

“Today we draw a line in the sand for the Australian food industry,” he said. “We hope companies big and small follow our lead. Consumers deserve to have the food they are eating classified in an easy-to-understand way.”

Disclosure: Australian Medicine received a 600 gram sample packet of Monster Health Food Co.’s Berry Muesli.  

Adrian Rollins