'Full of loopholes': Aussie food firms' nutrition policies ranked as obesity soars

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

Australia's biggest food and beverage manufacturers could be doing "far more" to address Australia's obesity problem. ©GettyImages
Australia's biggest food and beverage manufacturers could be doing "far more" to address Australia's obesity problem. ©GettyImages
Some of Australia's biggest food and beverage manufacturers have been found wanting in their nutrition policies, with only half receiving a 'passing grade', according to a new Deakin University report.

The 'Inside our Food and Beverage Manufacturers'​ report, which ranks the nutrition policies of firms, states that they could be doing far more to address Australia's obesity problem.

These 19 companies on the list, Australia's biggest according to market share, scored from three to 71 out of 100.

The full ranking is:

Lion Dairy & Drinks – 71

Nestle – 69

Unilever – 68

Coca-Cola – 64

Mars – 64

Sanitarium – 64

Simplot – 62

Campbell Arnott’s – 55

Fonterra – 51

PepsiCo – 50

Kellogg’s* – 48

George Weston Foods – 44

Mondelez* – 42

Kraft Heinz* – 29

McCain* – 14

Tru Blu Beverages* – 9

Schweppes* – 8

Goodman Fielder* – 4

Parmalat* – 3

*Assessment based on publicly available information only.

The report examined the companies' policies and commitments related to obesity prevention and nutrition, but did not assess the healthiness of specific products.

More to protect children

"A key point, backed up by other research, is that the current voluntary commitments to reduce marketing to kids are ineffectual, so companies need to tighten up their policies and actions in the area," ​said Associate Professor Gary Sacks, a research fellow at Deakin's Global Obesity Centre and the report's lead author.

"Their current promises are full of loopholes. While they promise not to directly target children, this doesn't prevent unhealthy food advertising in prime-time when the highest number of children are watching.

"Some companies also promise not to sponsor 'children's' sporting events, but that still doesn't cover the major professional sports, like the AFL, that are extremely popular with children and families."

Broader range of actions

Data released in November by the Australian Institute of Health revealed that two-thirds of the population is now overweight or obese.

Sacks said that most of the companies that had been assessed had acknowledged their responsibility for being part of efforts to improve population diets, and had some related policies and commitments in place.

"The areas of strongest performance included companies reporting some action to reformulate products to make them healthier, and an increasing commitment amongst companies to implement the Australian Government-endorsed Health Star Rating food labelling system,"​ said Sacks.

However, he highlighted that manufacturers varied substantially in their policies and commitments, and there was considerable room for improvement for all the companies.

"Food and beverage manufacturers need to implement a broad range of actions to contribute to societal efforts to prevent obesity and improve population health," ​he said.

"Unhealthy diets are creating a public health crisis in Australia. This has a high cost to the economy, including large impacts on the health care system and productivity.”

He said this is not just about social responsibility but also about long-term business sustainability.

Investors are increasingly focused on company contributions to the health of all Australians, and how this links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nutrition is considered a component of all 17 of these goals," ​he said.

Three priorities

'Inside our Food and Beverage Manufacturers' sets out three priorities for F&B firms contribute more greatly to nutrition and obesity prevention.

Promotion to children​: To strengthen existing commitments on marketing to children to reduce the exposure of children and teenagers to the promotion of 'less healthy' foods.

Product formulation:​ To set specific targets and timelines to reduce added sugar, salt, saturated fat and artificially-produced trans-fat content in products, and report on the progress.

Nutrition labelling:​ For all companies to commit to the implementation of the Australian Government's Health Star Rating across all relevant products.

The data compiled in the report was gathered from publicly available as well as company policy information provided by company representatives.

It was then assessed using the 'Business Impact Assessment — Obesity and population nutrition tool' developed by INFORMAS, a global network of public health researchers that monitors food environments worldwide.

This tool considers company policies and commitments across six key domains related to obesity prevention and nutrition: corporate strategy, product formulation, nutrition labelling, promotion to children, product availability and affordability, and relationships with external groups.

This is the first time Australia's F&B manufacturers have been put under the microscope in this way, and it follows the release of a similar report on the nutrition policies of Australia's largest supermarkets in January.

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