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Shooting the stars a backward move

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The adoption of a national food labelling system signifying the ''healthiness'' of a product has been a protracted and tortuous process marked by frequent complaint as to its cost, effectiveness and consistency with overseas nutrition guides. It took another twist last week when a Health Department website promoting a new, voluntary star rating system agreed to late last year by the federal government, states and territories was taken down just hours after it was published.

Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash admitted in Parliament this week that she had ordered the website to be removed so as not to confuse consumers about the yet-to-be implemented system, which rates foods from half a star up to five stars for the healthiest products. Senator Nash went on to say that publication of the site was also premature because a cost-benefit analysis of the policy had yet to be finished. Revelations that Ms Nash's chief of staff was previously chairman of a lobby group that represents Cadbury, Kraft and the Australian Beverages Council - and that his wife is the group's sole director and secretary - added a further element of controversy to the website's disappearance.

If Senator Nash's dismissal of a conspiracy theory linking the disappearance of the website to a ministerial staffer with a possible conflict of interest was easily deflected, the remainder of her explanation left some people doubting the sincerity of the government's commitment to implementing the new regime agreed to last year. Her concerns about consumer confusion, for example, echo some the criticisms levelled at the star system by its most vocal opponent, the Australian Food and Grocery Council. The chief executive of the council, Gary Dawson, also alleges the rating system has been rushed, that there is no evidence it will achieve health results, and that it will cost $200 million to implement, as well as imposing an added regulatory burden on the industry. But then, he would say that.

In fact, the star system has been at least three years in the making and even longer in conception, given the recommendations of the Blewett food-labelling review entitled Labelling Logic were first made public in January 2011. Furthermore, a star rating system represents a considerable departure from the Blewett report, which advocated a system of traffic light labelling, where red, amber or green would indicate the health rating of a product. The Gillard government rejected that recommendation, stating there was insufficient evidence of its likely efficacy. It was, however, broadly supportive of the other recommendations, with the exception of one seeking to extend country-of-origin labelling.

In June last year the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation, comprising ministers from the federal government, territories, states and New Zealand, agreed to adopt the star system but to allow companies to opt out if they chose. The ministers left open the possibility of making the system mandatory if they felt the take-up by manufacturers was too low, but allowed them three years to implement it. The cost to the industry over those three years was estimated to be $50 million, rising to $100 million with

greater uptake.

What Professor Mike Daube, deputy chairman of the National Preventative Health Taskforce, says is ''the most significant step forward in food labelling that we have seen in decades'' is now in abeyance awaiting the results of the cost-benefit analysis ordered by the Department of Finance's Office of Best Practice Regulation. Whether this protracted study leads to the undoing of the ministerial agreement is not clear. However, sceptics believe the Food and Grocery Council, emboldened by the Coalition's favourable views on industry ''self-regulation'', may use the results to try to obstruct or delay further the implementation of the star rating system. That would be an extraordinary goal given the unanimity of last year's agreement, and the fact that half the Australian population at present qualifies as being overweight. Last-minute quibbling and backtracking should not be allowed to derail an initiative that will help address the causes of our obesity epidemic.

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