There are concerns the food and alcohol industry is lobbying to move labelling standards outside the health system while ministers are preoccupied with Covid
Demand for Australian-manufactured infant foods is booming overseas, thanks to the country’s reputation for producing high-quality and safe food.
Australia’s products have earned such a reputation because they are officially deemed free from harmful chemicals, and bacteria that can lead to food poisoning, but the high-quality label doesn’t take into account the nutritional content of the food.
When it comes to the healthfulness of the products, a review by consumer advocate group Choice, published in August, found that more than half of the 78 packaged meals and snacks marketed for toddlers contained harmful sugars. The worst offenders contained more than 60% sugar.
That has raised questions that a review of the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand [FSANZ] Act is currently grappling with: under food safety and labelling standards, should “safety” relate only to whether the product is safe to eat and free from bacteria and food-borne disease? Or should the labelling also reflect whether the ingredients are associated with longer-term harms, such as obesity, heart disease and cancer?
FSANZ is a statutory authority that is part of the federal Department of Health , but its governance is overseen by “food ministers”, which could be either health or agriculture ministers from the federal government and each state and territory.
The CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, Terry Slevin, says public health groups are concerned that with health ministers preoccupied by Covid-19, food and alcohol industry representatives have been lobbying to shift FSANZ to the agriculture portfolio.
“The ethos of agriculture is to promote a food industry, both within Australia and with export objectives,” he says. “And that’s going to mean not having too many regulations in place that will hamstring that industry. A food regulation system that stays within the health system will give greater consideration to the health aspects of the food supply.
“So it comes down to what’s important about food? Is it about having the industry be strong and profitable, or is a healthy food supply also one that considers the long-term food-related health issues like obesity?”
Alcohol Beverages Australia (ABA) argues that the remit of FSANZ should stay firmly in the former. In his submission to the review, ABA policy officer Jonathan Chew wrote that he would be concerned about any extension of FSANZ’s original mandate beyond ensuring acute food-borne illnesses were prevented. He said FSANZ should not move “to a role in responding to broader health policy such as the pursuit of consumer behavioural change to address multifaceted public health issues such as obesity, non-communicable disease and the consumption of alcohol”.
“We believe this is, and should remain, outside the scope of work managed by FSANZ,” Chew wrote.
The aims and objectives of the food regulatory system, outlined by the health department, state that “the overriding priority will always be protecting public health and safety”.
A senior research fellow in food policy and law with the George Institute for Global Health, Dr Alexandra Jones, says that means issues like obesity and chronic disease are well within the remit of FSANZ.
“The majority of Australians do die from what I would call long-term food poisoning, which is sustained, excessive consumption of foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat, and we’re dying of cancers and heart disease because of this,” Jones says.
“The FSANZ system has adapted to work on these long-term chronic disease risks. This has started to concern the food industry because when they start to see measures implemented that warn consumers about unhealthy aspects of their food, such as pregnancy warnings on alcohol, that potentially has a tension with profits.”
Jones and Slevin are concerned there has also been a lack of transparency around the review. The government has not yet made the 76 submissions from stakeholders public, so it is difficult to respond to issues raised. The meeting of food ministers intended for 4 November was delayed, but no new date has been communicated to them.
The review is due to be completed by the end of the year, but updates about its progress are not forthcoming. Jones and Slevin say it also remains unclear what final proposals for any reforms or amendments to the system have been put before the food ministers.
“Our concern is that there is a lot of lobbying going on in the background, especially in Covid conditions where you have health ministers very preoccupied by something else,” Jones says.
The federal minister responsible for FSANZ, Richard Colbeck, says the next food ministers’ meeting is set for 16 December but that the agenda would not be disclosed before the meeting.
He says the government “acknowledges the vital role of FSANZ as a regulatory authority under the auspices of the Department of Health”.
Jane Martin, the executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, says she received a letter from Colbeck in October saying an “option” for how the FSANZ Act could be reformed had already been put to the food ministers for endorsement. But two months later, no one in the public health sector has been told what that option entails, she says, including whether it involves shifting FSANZ to the Department of Agriculture.
Colbeck did not provide detail to Guardian Australia when asked, saying a full communique would be released after the next meeting.
“We have got no transparency,” Martin says. “It’s really disappointing when you’re trying to participate in a process to support the health of Australia at a time when the latest burden-of-disease report shows obesity and poor diet are a serious problem, and yet we are not getting any information from the minister about what proposed reforms our efforts and involvement are leading to.”
ABA says the FSANZ decision in 2020 to require a pregnancy warning label on packaged alcoholic beverages sold in Australia and New Zealand is evidence that “some stakeholders seek to use the food regulatory system as a platform to pursue longer-term behavioural change beyond simply assuring the safety and reliability of food products”.
“There is clearly no case or justification for FSANZ to expand its remit into either preventative health or farm and food sustainability,” the most recent ABA submission to the review states.
The CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Caterina Giorgi, says the alcohol industry fought hard against the pregnancy warning labels and lost, so had shifted focus.
“My concern is that they are now trying to dismantle the structures that exist to make these decisions,” she says. “So once alcohol pregnancy health warnings were introduced, almost immediately, they shifted their perspective to this review, and trying to water-down the remit of FSANZ.”
A nutritionist and visiting fellow at the school of medical sciences at the University of NSW, Dr Rosemary Stanton, has been working in the area of food-labelling reform for more than 50 years. She is familiar with the lobbying tactics used by the food, alcohol and tobacco industries and is committed to seeing the FSANZ reforms through.
“I’ve always said I’ll retire when we get a label saying ‘added sugar’ on products,” she says. “We had to fight for years to get even the ingredients on food labels, and then we had to fight for more years to get the nutrition information panel on there.
“You have to fight for everything.”