A senior government staffer who demanded a new healthy food rating website be taken down is married to the head of a lobbying outfit that works for the junk food industry, it has been revealed.
In senate question time on Tuesday, Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash admitted that both she and her chief-of-staff, Alastair Furnival, had personally intervened to insist health department staff pull down the new “health star rating” site on the day it was launched.
Mr Furnival was previously a chairman of Australian Public Affairs, which is listed on the lobbyists' register as representing the Australian Beverages Council and Mondelez Australia, which owns the Kraft peanut butter, Cadbury and Oreo brands, among others.
In question time, Ms Nash also admitted Mr Furnival was married to the company's sole director and secretary, Tracey Cain.
Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King has demanded an explanation for the actions of Ms Nash and Mr Furnival.
“The government has a responsibility to act in the best interests of all Australians,” she said. “It is for Senator Nash to explain how her actions and those of her office demonstrate this.”
Public health and consumer groups are furious that the site has been taken offline after two years in development, and have accused the government of bowing to the interests of the junk food industry.
The site, which set up a system that enabled food manufacturers to label their products with easy-to-understand nutritional information, was launched about midday on Wednesday last week, only to be pulled by 8pm that night.
On Friday, Ms Nash did not respond to questions from Fairfax Media about whether she or Mr Furnival had intervened to have the site removed.
A departmental spokeswoman had previously told Fairfax Media the site was just a “draft” that had been published due to an “inadvertent error”.
On Tuesday, Ms Nash told Parliament that Mr Furnival had approached departmental staff about the website on her direction.
She said she and Mr Furnival had complied with the ministerial code of conduct and a question asked by Labor Senator Penny Wong about Mr Furnival's relationship with the company was “unworthy”.
“The health star rating system is not yet in place – it would have been extremely confusing for consumers had that website remained in place,” she said. “There is no connection whatsoever between my chief of staff and the company, Australian Public Affairs. My chief of staff has no connection with the food industry and is simply doing his job."
Both the Public Health Association of Australia and consumer group CHOICE have condemned the decision to take the website down.
Public Health Association head Michael Moore said it was "inconceivable" that the website was only a draft.
"I looked at it very carefully, and there was nothing that struck me about it as being a draft," he said. "It just doesn't make sense."
He said the health star rating system had been developed in conjunction with the food industry, which had rejected an earlier push for a system that used traffic lights as symbols.
When it became clear the Coalition would likely gain power, representatives from the Australian Food and Grocery Council backed away from the star ratings.
“It's a voluntary system, so what is the Food and Grocery Council afraid of?” Mr Moore asked on Friday.
The Food and Grocery Council has maintained that it is only pushing for a cost-benefit analysis to examine the effects of the system on industry, something supported by Ms Nash.
She told Parliament the process had not yet concluded.
“There was also a cost-benefit analysis that was agreed to unanimously by the members of the [food minister's] forum last December … to ensure that we would have the appropriate rigour in terms of the impact to industry and, indeed, the full cost-benefit analysis,” she said.
A statement from Ms Nash's office said Mr Furnival had met all the requirements of employment and of the ministerial staff code of conduct.
"He has no role whatsoever in his wife's business," the statement read.