Date: July 21 2012
Makers of sugar-rich foods like Nutri-Grain and some other cereals and fruit bars claiming questionable health benefits will have to change their labels or their ingredients under new truth in labelling measures.
But after months of controversy, food ministers appear to have bowed to food industry pressure and proposed allowing food companies to introduce products making questionable health claims before regulators can stop them.
Regulators would be able to force changes if products were found to breach food and labelling standards, health and consumer groups say.
Victoria and New Zealand could also be able to opt out of assessment of health claims by the trans-Tasman regulators, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, in what has been described by one source as a ''messy'' compromise.
The ministers' refusal to enforce a requirement that health claims on food labels be subjected to regulatory checks before they go on sale has drawn warnings from health and consumer groups that an unhealthy product could gain a market foothold before being pulled up.
Consumer group CHOICE condemned the decision, saying food and health ministers had abandoned the independent verification of new health claims and given the food industry an effective veto over food labelling policy.
''Ministers have buckled under pressure from the food industry and opened the door to a health marketing free-for-all,'' CHOICE campaigns chief Matt Levey said.
''Ministers today walked away from a long-standing proposal from FSANZ that would require health claims on food to be verified by the independent regulator before being marketed.''
The ministers issued a communique late yesterday saying they would support measures to ensure that health claims appeared only on healthy foods. But their statement was vague on detail and said a review on the policy would be extended until October 31.
The ministers said the proposed arrangements would mean ''that foods that contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt will not be able to claim health benefits''.
Kellogg's Nutri-Grain describes its product as a ''carbo-loaded power pack of energy … [that] helps fuel your personal best every time''. That popular product, along with other cereals making dubious claims of antioxidant benefits, fruit juices promoted as immunity-boosting and beverages claiming to be concentration-boosters, are likely to come under fresh scrutiny and possible label re-writes.
Health leaders have warned that introducing a system that would trigger public confusion about healthy food was unacceptable in an era when increasing numbers of Australians were falling prey to obesity and food-triggered diseases.
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