It is said that a powerful industry can sell anything to anyone.
And indeed, industry has profited greatly from its role in some of the most serious public health problems in modern times – smoking, obesity, alcohol and gambling to name but a few.
Public health advocates have argued that industry should have a very limited role (if at all) in health policy decisions about their products. Decisions to reform products may improve the health of communities, but may also impact on the profits of the companies that sell them.
In 2013, the Director General of the World Health Organisation Margaret Chan outlined that our efforts to prevent non-communicable diseases such as obesity certainly go against the business interests of powerful corporations:
“… it is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.
Research has documented these tactics well. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.
Tactics also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public. They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.”
In Australia, we have seen the might of these powerful industries at first hand. Tobacco successfully lobbied governments for decades. And when gambling reform was touted by Andrew Wilkie, Australia’s major political parties literally ‘hit the jackpot’.
The tactics of junk food industries are no exception.
Until recently there has been very limited government level agreement about how to make Big Food accountable for the way in which they present information about their products to the community.
We know that marketing is an essential component in the way in which the junk food industry sells food that is energy dense and nutrition poor. We also know that people struggle to read nutrition labels that are often complex and buried on the back or side panels of brightly coloured packets that highlight the ‘good’ aspects of their products and minimise the ‘bad’.
I also doubt if there are many mums or dads who inspect and understand the nutritional labelling on every single product as they drag the kids round the supermarket.
I don’t know about you but I’m just racing around the aisles as quickly as I can to avoid getting into long debates with my kids about why they can’t have the chips or lollies that have been so conveniently placed at child height on the shelves.
Hang on kids… can you just stand there quietly while mummy tries to decipher the Daily Intake Guide? I don’t think so.
Yet most people do understand that the nutritional content of food is important. They want clearer, easy to read information that allows them to make better choices for themselves and their families.
This is why the Health Star system is so important. Taken down by Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash after only a few hours of operation, the website enabled consumers to make choices based on information about the total nutritional content of foods. It has become the source of an ongoing conflict-of-interest controversy, following the resignation of Nash’s chief-of-staff Alistair Furnival, who has links to the junk food industry.
The Health Star website showed a clear ‘five star’ rating system – based on the calculation of sugar, salt and saturated fat.
The higher the star rating, the healthier the product.
So when I’m faced with a choice of two similar cereals I can easily see which one is ‘healthier’ to put in front of my kids in the morning.
Perhaps more importantly it sends a message to industry to improve the content of their products.
Purchasing more 5 star products, and fewer 1 star products, sends a very clear message to industries that we want them to improve the content of their foods.
The reported amount of opposition to the scheme by some sectors of the food industry is perhaps an indication that it would have been.
Efforts to improve the health of our communities will not be about how many people tune into the Biggest Loser.
It will be about how we comprehensively tackle the tactics of junk food industry.
And in the case of Health Star it is clearly about how we hold our Federal Government to account too.