Australia: Food industry to combat health concerns

At a recent international conference on public health, participants were advised that it is “risky business” for the government to engage with the food industry to combat health concerns such as obesity, especially given the fact that the effectiveness of food packaging labels is already in jeopardy.

A researcher at the Menzies Centre in Sydney named Dr. Dori Patay stated that despite the abundance of evidence indicating that the food business has a negative influence on health policy, governments are increasingly viewing the food sector as “partners” in the fight against chronic diseases.

At the University of Sydney event, which is investigating the ways in which powerful companies affect and hurt health, Patay said, “We know it’s very risky business to get into a partnership with the food industry.” The event is studying the ways in which powerful industries influence and harm health.

“The Australian government feels that they need to work as partners with the food sector; yet, what we find is that these processes are rarely as independent as we require them to be… In truth, the food sector takes use of these alliances in order to delay the implementation of mandatory regulation, which we are aware would be effective.

At the meeting, Professor Simone Pettigrew from the George Institute for Global Health mentioned the Health Star Rating system as an illustration of this kind of effect.

The food industry pushed back against the more evidence-based traffic-light labelling system, which employs green, amber, and red to quickly show quantities of fat, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium in a product at a glance. This led to the creation of the Health Star Rating system, which was designed to replace the traffic-light labelling system.

The Food Labelling Review, which was published in 2011, included one of the most important proposals, which was to implement a traffic-light system. The review was led by a former health minister named Dr. Neal Blewett, who also chaired the review.

However, the food business “fights back against independent research,” as Pettigrew stated.

According to the findings of a recent study conducted by Pettigrew and her colleagues, less than four out of ten products sold in supermarkets that are eligible to bear the Health Star Rating actually do so.

She claimed that the grading system is defective due to the fact that it is optional, which means that the food business only applies it to the goods they deem to be healthier. In addition, the label is only available in black and white, despite the fact that previous study has shown that colored labels are more effective.

“They have that revolving door, where there are a lot of government officials who just walk through that door to a job in the food industry,” Pettigrew said. “This makes it really difficult for them [the government] to stand their ground against the industry when it comes to [policy] consultations.”

She stated that the food business was “denying there’s a problem” with the nutritional content of its items, and that the industry instead blamed individuals for the food choices they made and the amount of activity they got.

“So rather than what is in the drink that you’re putting in your mouth driving the obesity issue, [the industry claims] it’s the amount of exercise that you’re doing,” Pettigrew said. “So rather than what is in the drink that you’re putting in your mouth driving the obesity issue.”

She advocated for the establishment of more stringent procedures for disclosure of conflicts of interest, the establishment of a cooling off period before government officials are allowed to work for potentially detrimental corporations, and the elimination of the practice of asking powerful commercial industries to participate in policy talks.

Throughout the course of the conference’s two days, a number of speakers addressed the ways in which major companies, including the tobacco, gambling, food, and alcohol industries, engage in lobbying and policies that are detrimental to public health and the environment.

Keynote speaker Professor Laura Schmidt from the University of California did study on how tobacco businesses bought food brands and utilized their understanding of flavors, colors, and marketing learned from cigarette marketing to build leading children’s sugar-sweetened drink brands. Her findings were presented during the conference.

During the conference, she stated that the fact that commercial businesses have a negative impact on people’s health is “driving us to existential crisis.”

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