Hard fought-for Health Stars reform hangs in balance in another David and Goliath battle

SYDNEY, JULY 13 – Australia’s leading public health groups are anxiously awaiting the outcomes of an unexpected additional consultation on changes to the Health Star Rating front-of-pack nutrition labelling system.

Ministers will meet on July 17 to finalise the outcomes of a five-year review of Health Stars’ performance, originally due for completion in mid-2019. Their decisions hinge on submissions resulting from a last-minute request for stakeholder feedback on a proposed implementation start date and proposed stronger penalties on salt and sugar.

Public health lawyer Dr Alexandra Jones from The George Institute for Global Health said this was concerning because changes to the way salt and sugar content is calculated and displayed were the most important things to come out of the review, both from a health perspective and also to rebuild consumer trust in the system.

“No one wants to accept sugary breakfast cereals scoring four stars. People want something that helps them make healthier choices, not something that allows ‘gaming’ by industry,” she said.

“It’s good the government has listened to the primary concerns of consumer and public health groups and kept stronger penalties on salt and sugar on the table. Making sure these changes to Health Stars scoring are now adopted – and not watered down by industry – is key to ensuring that Health Stars are a meaningful public health measure and not simply a marketing tool,” she added.

“We know most manufacturers will be opposed to this because some product scores will go down,” added Dr Jones, “but these are exactly the changes we need to ensure that Health Stars work for consumers, not just food companies.”

This latest call for comment is now the fourth time stakeholders, including manufacturers, have been publicly consulted on changes to the way Health Stars are calculated Rating algorithm, despite the World Health Organization recommending that food scoring be the responsibility of governments and independent experts, free from commercial and other vested interests.

In fact, Australia is one of only four countries out of a total of 32 worldwide that still engages industry in the development of nutrient scoring criteria for its front of pack labelling systems.

Leading public health organisations have long been calling for the Australian system to be made mandatory. Recently published research by The George Institute shows that while uptake of HSR has increased steadily in Australia over its first five years of voluntary implementation, it is still only displayed on a minority of eligible products, mostly those that score well.

“Food Ministers have already recognised that inconsistent uptake of HSR on products negatively affects consumer trust in the system, as well as reducing its effectiveness,” said Dr Jones.

“This new work confirms the limitations of commercial goodwill in applying health labelling voluntarily. Health Stars will work best when consumers can see them on everything. We’ve done this with country of origin labelling to provide more information on where food comes from – its now time we had the same transparency for healthiness too,” she added.

Dr Jones said that the late addition of this extra consultation also gave appeared to give industry the opportunity to use COVID-19 as a further excuse not to implement the recommended changes in a reasonable time frame.

“Instead of COVID-19 being another excuse it should be a reminder of an important opportunity to improve nutrition labelling for consumers, particularly when the pandemic may have made healthy eating more challenging. Having more limited opportunity to handle food packages or having to shop online makes simple, graphical front-of-pack labelling even more important,” she said.

“We support the Health Star Rating system – research suggests it is performing well overall and should be continued as one part of the comprehensive suite of policies needed to improve Australian diets.”

“But we need to see these changes adopted and rolled out as soon as possible, for the sake of the nation’s health,” Dr Jones added.

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