Call for action on obesity

Warning that obesity and poor nutrition contribute to chronic illnesses, experts call for food labelling website to be relaunched.

Public health experts have called for urgent action to reduce obesity following the Abbott Government’s decision to scrap a healthy-food star rating system.

The website for the food rating system was online for just a few hours before being taken down under instruction from the office of Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash.

The assistant minister’s then chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, was later forced to resign after it was revealed he held shares in a company that had done lobbying for the junk food industry.

Some 66 health professors co-signed a letter to state and territory food ministers calling on them to take urgent action to reinstate the star rating system.

The professors warned that obesity and poor nutrition were contributing to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and cancer.

The Front of Pack food labelling website took two years to develop and had been approved by all state and territory health ministers.

The consumer advocacy group Choice said the star rating system gave consumers information they could use to make healthier choices at-a-glance.

One of Australia’s foremost cancer experts, the University of Sydney’s Bruce Armstrong, says he signed the letter in because getting better information to the public is crucial.

“Obesity is shaping up as one of the major drivers of cancer rates into the future,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “As a consumer myself I see how extracting from the label the information you want to find out … is really quite difficult.”

Dr Lesley Russell, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, is also an honorary research associate at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy.

Dr Russell told The Lamp it was “clearly a political decision” to take the website down.

“We need a concerted and multifaceted effort to tackle obesity in Australia. One way of doing that is to have a website that provides information about obesity and nutrition,” she said.

“Such a website would be a key initiative allowing us to move forward on a major public health issue.”

Dr Russell rejected the argument that governments had no business trying to influence eating habits, because they were a matter of personal responsibility.

She said the government should play a role in combating obesity if only because obesity costs taxpayers money in terms of increasing health expenditure and lost productivity.

“If you are going to argue for personal responsibility then you have to give consumers adequate information so they can make informed decisions.

“Giving people adequate nutritional information on websites and on food packaging is one of the ways you can contribute to personal responsibility.”

Alastair Furnival was a shareholder of lobby group Australian Public Affairs (APA), which once represented multi-national food giant Mondelez International.

The consumer watchdog Choice decided to take a closer look at Mondelez after it attacked the rating system as “ill-founded, unscientific and confusing”.

The main element of the food rating website was a calculator, which generated a star rating for packaged food depending on how healthy it was. Choice used the calculator to compare Mondelez brands, such as Kraft, Cadbury, Oreo and Nabisco, with the offerings of its leading competitors.

Choice campaigns manager, Angela Cartwright said that in all three comparisons undertaken, the Health Star Rating “shot down the Mondelez product each time”.

“Choice questions whether the real reason Mondelez doesn’t like the system is that it would show consumers that some of their products are less healthy than the alternatives,” Ms Cartwright said.