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Australian healthy food effort has failed, says study

3 commentsBy Ankush Chibber , 04-Feb-2014

Australian healthy food effort has failed, says study

Efforts by successive Australian governments to make more healthy foods available in the country have failed, with few controls on food and beverage manufacturers being enforced, a new study has found.  

According to the study, which was executed by researchers from the George Institute of Global Health and the University of Sydney, the federal government's Food and Health Dialogue has been unable to reduce or restrict foods laden with fat, sugar and salt.

“It has fantastic aims but a very weak implementation plan,” said Bruce Neal, senior director at the George Institute, and professor of medicine at the University of Sydney.

The Food and Health Dialogue was launched by the government in mid-2009 to improve the nutritional profile of foods and help educate consumers about their diets.

The mute dialogue

According to the study, which was published in the Medical Journal of Australia, in the first four years of the plan, targets were set for just 11 out of a possible 124 action areas  and none were delivered.

In addition, researchers found that there was also no evidence that any of its proposed educational programmes had been implemented.

“Poor diet is now an even bigger cause of ill health for Australia than smoking. Unfortunately, while the government has been doing a stellar job on tobacco control, it's not doing quite so well in the food space,” said Neal, who is also a co-author in the study.

“If we are to get on top of health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, we have to fully implement the Dialogue objectives. The huge quantities of salt, sugar and fat added to the food supply by industry are now the main cause of ill health in the country, and the Dialogue is the only serious attempt to get on top of this,” he added.

Neal acknowledged that implementing the objectives was going to be a complex and ongoing process. “Some companies have been making a real effort, but if you look at the big picture progress has been depressingly slow,” he said.

According to Rob Moodie, professor of public health at the Melbourne School of Population Health at the University of Melbourne, there is an urgent need for action.

“We need the government to make this a priority. And we have to find a way to strengthen a process that relies on the voluntary engagement of industry. Powerful industry lobby groups like the Australian Food and Grocery Council are stifling action,” said Moodie, also a co-author on the study.

Lawmakers need to show some muscle

According to Neal, the Dialogue and its implementation can be made more effective if three sets of recommendations are met with. First, there needs to be a rationalising of stakeholder roles—government and public health groups must set the policies and the food industry must deliver them, so the government needs to show stronger leadership, said Neal.

Secondly, there need to be clear targets and timelines, with consequences for non-achievement, such as enforcement if voluntary measures fail to deliver. The study suggests that currently, business incentives all push for the addition of more salt, fat and sugar in order to maximise profit.

Finally, there need to be better transparency and reporting—the successes and failures of individual industry players need to be highlighted, with easy community access to information that will empower consumer choices, said Neal.

3 comments (Comments are now closed)

Industry wins in delaying reform - consumer loses

Allan and Catherine's earlier comments call it from an industry point of view; I will try and call it from the consumers'...
Industry is making highly processed food that has very limited nutritional value over homemade and natural food sources. Functional ingredients and modified food stuffs are pale imitations of ‘real’ food. Industry chase flavour, texture and appeal at a price consumers wish to pay.
The marketing arms of the food industry obviously drive home the small positives of their product hoping the consumer overlooks or misunderstands the baggage of poor nutrition or high calories. The louder they yell about anything other than the product, you can be assured it isn’t that good for you.
The consumer can be responsible for what they eat BUT this would mean severely limiting the intake of processed foods. There is no real information on the pack to make decisions about what’s in it as the labelling regulations seem to be a plaything for industry and politicians. Consumers are been fooled by the marketing campaigns and continue to load up on hollow calories chasing the benefits of lauded micro-nutrients splashed across the label.
I eat a very basic diet and avoid processed foods as best I can. It seems that I can have a burger on the weekend but that would be it. Otherwise the weight creeps on and the health dips. 8700kJ per day allows for a real food diet but you have no calories left for more than a single small junky snack.
If we all followed the healthy food guidelines then the food industry as we know it would collapse. Therefore food processors should not be at the table deciding voluntary or regulatory guidelines. Their profit generating purpose is a conflict of interest in consumer welfare.
The new assumption for the consumer is that all processed food is junk food until you understand ALL the ingredients and the processing steps and subsequent nutritive value. A big ask for the average consumer.

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Posted by Graham
07 February 2014 | 04h13

Research waste of time and effort

Neal is right to say that poor diet contributes to poor health, but then his logic falls apart. People select which foods they buy and eat. Manufacturers do not tell them which ones to buy and in what quantities although they might love to be able to. Manufacturers have gone to the wall because they no longer produce the food that people want to buy for whatever reason - price, availability, nutrition, etc.
Fat, sugar and salt reduction and have been going on for years in manufactured food products, but obesity is increasing, so logic says that major factors must lie elsewhere. Reducing the amount of food eaten will naturally reduce the amount of fat, sugar, and salt consumed. Therefore tackling the quantities that people eat might be a more productive line to address the issue, but unfortunately it is too difficult to measure and therefore is unlikely to satisfy the like of Neal and Moodie.
The plan was ill-conceived to start off with playing at the fringes of the issue and not taking into consideration consumer behaviour. Until it is changed understand why and in what quantities Australians eat what they do, and then to tackle these issues head-on the plan is little more than window-dressing to allow politicians say that something is being done.

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Posted by Allan
06 February 2014 | 05h24

Do not agree with this research

Why does this guy Neal think that it is the food industrys fault and that the government had to take strong leadership on what food manufacturer can and can't add. I disagree with this study and the statement that 'currently business incentives all push for the addition of more salt, fat, and sugar in in order to maximise profit'. This is a false and misleading statement. How about challending people lifestyles over what the food industry is doing. These are the things that are not addressed in public health. This includes individual understanding thier chewing habits and the speed of which people eat their food. Too often individuals are not digesting their food properly, along with eating it too quickly. As well individual understanding the amount of calories they are actually intaking. Do not blame it on the food industry and encourage the goverment to control what we eat. Make individuals accountable for their own eating habits and lifetstyle.

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Posted by Catherine
05 February 2014 | 00h56