Get set for our messiest food fight yet
Ruth WilliamsFebruary 27, 2011
Canada's leading Laparoscopic Band Centre for Weight Loss
Picture: Craig Sillitoe
The food industry will fight hard to retain its marketing edge.
NOT so long ago, it was easy to tell which foods were good for you and which were not - what was a staple, what was a treat.
Now, it is less clear. And public health advocates will tell you, that is no accident; it is the result of clever marketing strategies by the powerful food industry.
Kellogg's Coco Pops, for example, are fortified with calcium, iron and zinc; the packet describes them as ''nutritious grains of puffed rice''. But they are also 30 per cent sugar.
As brand names go, Vitamin Water could hardly sound healthier. And its various flavours do contain vitamins - as well as five teaspoons of sugar in every bottle.
Such packaging may be confusing, even contradictory. But it is legal.
Vitamins and minerals can be added to most cereals, allowing them to be marketed as healthy, no matter how much sugar, fat or salt they contain.
And they can be added to drinks, as long as they contain less than 75 grams of sugar per litre - about three-quarters of the sugar content of Coca-Cola.
But as most Australians are already getting enough nutrients in their diets, it is the manufacturers - who use them to promote their products - that benefit most from minerals and vitamins being added to food.
''Unfortunately, too often it is the marketing goals of a food manufacturer rather than health concerns that explain why many breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals,'' says Mark Lawrence, associate professor at Deakin University's school of exercise and nutrition sciences.
''It is often the most highly processed sugary and salty breakfast cereals that are most heavily marketed to children, and the marketing approach appears to be that if you sprinkle some nutrients on them they can masquerade as a healthy food,'' he says.
So as the nation grows dangerously fat, who is to blame?
Consumer and health experts say that when it comes to decisions about laws governing what we eat, food industry demands for ''innovation'' and marketing opportunities have at times trumped warnings about health.
Australia's food industry wields a mighty influence. It employs more than 315,000 people, and is the nation's biggest manufacturing sector.
It also boasts one of the nation's most effective industry lobby groups, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, which is headed by former pharmacist and ACT chief minister Kate Carnell. It is based in Canberra just down the road from Parliament House and around the corner from the national food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
Webs of influence criss-cross industry-funded food bodies, universities and government-backed food regulators. It is not unusual for people to work for all three simultaneously.
Meanwhile, consumers - time-poor and budget-conscious - are left in the dark, as decisions are made behind closed doors about what goes into the food they eat, and what information they are given about it.
FOOD in Australia is cheap, plentiful and - from a hygiene point of view - overwhelmingly safe to eat. But something, somewhere, has gone wrong. One in three Australian adults is overweight, one in four is obese, and the rising toll of lifestyle-related diseases means that today's teenagers may have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
The Food and Grocery Council, whose 150 members include most of Australia's big packaged food and drink makers, says it is committed to helping fight the nation's obesity crisis.
''We think industry has a responsibility to be part of the solution on obesity,'' Ms Carnell says. ''It is a complex area and industry needs to be a significant player in that.''
She says industry already helps consumers eat healthily with low-fat, low-salt and low-sugar products, and with its daily intake guide labelling system (see panel).
She denies that manufacturers place marketing priorities ahead of public health concerns and points to the grocery council's participation in the government's Food and Health Dialogue, and its Responsible Marketing to Children initiative.
But public health experts say more is needed to save Australia from an increasingly fat future.
''To some extent we have to take the blame,'' says Maggie Niall, a semi-retired public health nutritionist. ''They [the food industry] have dominated the agenda, without any of us being able to do anything about it … they have the ear of the Health Department and ministers … We have tried, but we don't have the lobbying money.''
Both sides are now gearing up for what may be Australia's biggest food fight yet. An exhaustive review into Australia's food labelling regime - dubbed the Blewett review, after its chairman, former health minister Neal Blewett - last month made 61 recommendations for reshaping Australia's food regulations.
It has recommended a crackdown on health and nutrition claims on labels, and for Australia to adopt traffic-light labelling on food products - a simple system of classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy that is strongly backed by public health advocates but opposed by the Food and Grocery Council.
The government's response is due in December, and both sides will use the lead-up to press their case. Those in the consumer and health fields believe that, this time, they have the upper hand.
''The Blewett review was an independent panel,'' says Clare Hughes, food policy officer at consumer advocate Choice. ''It did its job.''
But the food industry has a long track record of winning such stoushes. ''They approach politicians, they make political donations, they have good lobbyists,'' leading nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says.
''And on the other side you have the little consumer groups. They really don't have a hope.''
Not everyone is a fan of the Blewett review. Independent senator Nick Xenophon, who has campaigned heavily for food labelling reforms, says it was a ''fizzer'' on issues like trans-fats, country of origin and genetically modified foods. His view? ''The report seems to have caved in to the demands of Food Inc.''
The industry's first big victory on national food laws came almost 20 years ago when cereal makers won the right to add vitamins and minerals to products.
Australia's newly formed national food agency, the National Food Authority, wanted to ban such activities in most circumstances. But its decision was overturned by federal and state health ministers after what the authority's then chief executive, former public servant and lawyer Gae Pincus, describes as a ''dark and dirty'' campaign.
''They wanted to use vitamins and minerals as a marketing tool, and as a way of encouraging parents to believe they were giving their children health products,'' Ms Pincus says.
A now-defunct lobby group, the Australian Breakfast Cereal Industry Association, was formed for the fight, and Ms Pincus says that industry-friendly academics were recruited to pressure her to change the authority's decision.
Press clippings from the time set out the companies' arguments - ''the proposal will make the industry uncompetitive … force companies to change existing products, add to their costs and disrupt marketing strategies''.
There were also international threats to close operations in Australia.
Deakin University's Mark Lawrence explored the campaign for a paper published in 2009. He quoted one MP involved at the time: ''You don't allow yourself to be blackmailed by international companies. But on the other hand, why would you want [the company] to get out of Australia merely because they want to put vitamins in [their products]. If it's dangerous to health, that's different.''
Two decades later, the legacy of this is clear: sugar-laden cereals are fortified with ''essential vitamins and minerals'' so they can be marketed as healthy.
Ms Carnell defends cereal manufacturers, saying the industry has worked hard to reduce the sugar and salt content of many products. But she concedes ''people won't buy a cereal if it doesn't taste good''.
FEW argue against industry being involved in helping to shape food policy. But there are times when critics say the industry influence is disproportionate.
In December, the federal government unveiled a National Food Policy Working Group, a body that would provide the government with advice on a new national food plan - something industry, health and consumer groups all agree is needed.
It will examine Australia's food supply - including food security, food quality and the affordability and sustainability of food.
But the Public Health Association, a not-for-profit advocacy group, was appalled by the 13-member panel's make-up, saying it had been ''stacked''. The Dietitians Association of Australia was similarly alarmed. Six people were from food transport, processing and retail - including Ms Carnell, the chief executive of Woolworths, and the managing director of Edgell, Birds Eye and Chiko Roll producer Simplot. Three were from agriculture. Dr Peter Williams, from Wollongong University, was the only member with a public health background.
The Public Health Association accused the government of marginalising the health of consumers while it ''kowtows to the priorities of multibillion-dollar-a-year companies''.
''The last thing we want to do is undermine industry or undermine agriculture,'' says the association's chief executive, Michael Moore. ''But … they are, by omission, undermining the health of the community.''
Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Minister senator Joe Ludwig said he would ''consult broadly'' on the National Food Plan, and speak with health professionals.
VICTORIA'S Food Safety Council, which advises the state health minister on food safety, public health matters and the stance Victoria should take on national issues like labelling, has no serving public health specialist or consumer voice.
Ms Niall was on it, but quit in late 2009 because she ''no longer wanted to be part of the food industry promoting itself in Victoria''.
The council's list of members, tabled in Parliament late last year, confirms that four of the eight are directly employed by the food or food packaging industries. The council's chairwoman, consultant Dr Jenny Robertson, previously worked for National Foods, Paul's and George Weston Foods.
The three others are academics specialising in microbiology and infectious diseases.
''I don't have any objection to having an equal number of public health people and industry people [on the council],'' Ms Niall says. ''But when you have everyone with the food industry and there's no public health people, why bother? You give up.''
The current board was appointed under the Brumby government. On Friday, Health Minister David Davis said the Coalition government wanted ''balanced and considered advice from a range of people in this sector, which includes food industry representation, as well as public health representatives and healthy eating advocates''.
The council considered traffic-light labelling in 2009. Despite Ms Niall's strong arguments in favour of traffic-light labels, in June 2010 the council informed Victoria's health minister that ''such a system is not consistent with educating consumers around the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet''.
It is a position that closely echoes the stance of the Food and Grocery Council. ''If one system of front-of-pack labelling was better than any other, I suspect everyone would adopt it world wide,'' Ms Carnell tells The Sunday Age.
The grocery council argues that traffic-light labelling ''misleads'' consumers, telling them to ''stop'' eating foods such as dairy that may be high in fat, but can still be part of a healthy diet.
The Blewett review, however, found that traffic-light labels had been ''consistently found'' to be ''most effective'' in helping consumers understand the nutritional values of foods.
THE review has also called for a food labelling bureau to administer and enforce labelling laws. In theory, the states are supposed to do it. But Dr Stanton says health departments ''don't have the resources to do it''.
A common theme of review submissions was that while Food Standards Australia New Zealand delivers a technically safe food supply, it does not promote a healthy one. It is widely seen as favouring industry when it writes food standards - rules that govern the production, processing and packaging of food in Australia.
Some health professionals, including Dr Stanton, say the real problem is that the regulator needs to be more independent. ''The food regulatory system is deeply flawed in protecting public health,'' said another expert.
The food standards council's chief executive, Steve McCutcheon, defends the regulator, saying its decisions are based on ''the best available scientific evidence''. He says the board includes representatives from public health and nutrition, from the consumer affairs field and industry.
Two Australian board members have strong ties to industry. As disclosed in the directors' register of interests, four others consulted for food industry groups or companies including Nestle and Meat and Livestock Australia in the 12 months to March 25 last year.
Three had links to the same industry body: Go Grains Health & Nutrition Ltd. The company encourages Australians to consume more whole-grains, arguing that by doing so, the country can stave off heart disease, diabetes and weight gain.
It is not a controversial message - except that part of Go Grains' funding comes from companies including Arnotts, Nestle and Kellogg's, which are famous for producing sugar-laced snacks seen as contributing to such conditions.
Mr McCutcheon also pointed out that food standards' board members were involved in ''health-driven initiatives'', including university research on health and nutrition.
Indeed there are many interactions between health bodies, food industry bodies and health or charity groups. Some, such as the tie-up between KFC and the McGrath Foundation, or McDonald's and Weight Watchers, have raised the ire of nutritionist.
Even the Public Health Association has accepted an ''unencumbered'' grant from Sanitarium - part of what Mr Moore describes as the ''complex interaction'' between the food industry and other groups.
''There's no doubt … that [food companies], particularly the international food groups, do seek to interact with health organisations and spread their influence,'' he says.
''They want to sell their good messages, but they are also trying to understand what are the things that might influence their business. It's still the bottom line that's driving them.''
The government will spend the next few months deciding which of the Blewett review's recommendations it will adopt. But any reforms are likely to be more than a year away.
Senator Xenophon is not prepared to wait. He is working on a private members bill involving food labelling that he says will pre-empt the government's review response.
''The laws are less than useless because they mislead consumers,'' he says. ''I think we, as consumers, deserve better.''