Australia’s reformulation shortfall: Local governments failing to boost healthier food options - study

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Local governments in Australia need to play a bigger role in developing areas such as boosting food product reformulation and limiting the marketing of unhealthy food products. ©Getty Images
Local governments in Australia need to play a bigger role in developing areas such as boosting food product reformulation and limiting the marketing of unhealthy food products. ©Getty Images

Related tags Australia reformulation Local government

Local governments in Australia need to play a bigger role in developing areas such as boosting food product reformulation and limiting the marketing of unhealthy food products if the country is to create a truly comprehensive healthy food environment for local consumers, according to researchers.

The study was conducted by the University of Sydney and Deakin University, and involved the analysis of food and nutrition policies implemented in six different local governments (LGs) in Australia (Blacktown, City of Sydney, Fairfield, Ku-Ring-Gai, Penrith, Randwick) comparing these against a model framework based on Australian literature and international policy frameworks.

LGs are the third layer of governance in Australia (below federal government and state and territory governments). Governing bodies are generally called ‘councils’, whereas LG-governed areas can range from cities to districts to shires. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are 562 individual Local Government Areas in Australia as of 2020.

The researchers discovered a lack of LG policies governing healthier eating and nutrition, including in crucial areas such as food product reformulation and unhealthy food marketing governance.

“We found no mention at all of LGs engaging in initiatives related to the processing and packaging of food, including any policies on product reformulation targeted at food manufacturers,”​ they said.

“As a matter of fact, our research found only one example of a dedicated policy on healthy eating/nutrition: Blacktown’s Access to Fresh Food Policy, [but even this made no mention of any reformulation initiatives].

“We found only two mentions of encouraging food retailers to improve the availability/affordability of healthy food, [but] no mention of LGs using food regulatory schemes to encourage retailers to improve the healthiness of food.”

There was also a lack of any action against what the researchers deemed ‘Promotion, advertising and information‐based initiatives aimed a behaviour change’ such as the marketing of unhealthy food products within the LG jurisdictions.

“We [also] found no mention of LGs restricting unhealthy food marketing through measures within their jurisdiction, e.g. on infrastructure owned or managed by LGs [despite previous state government moves, such as in Queensland, to ban such public marketing],”​ they said.

“[The lack of these measures is especially concerning as] poor nutrition is a significant public health issue in Australia, with approximately 25% of children and 60% of adults living with obesity or overweight, and high body mass being the second‐leading risk factor contributing to the local disease burden.

“[It is important for the LGs to play a role here as they]c ould make a significant contribution to improving diet‐related health, especially since in recent years, state and federal governments have delegated their activities downwards, expanding LG’s operations.

“Local governments’ closeness to their communities gives them a unique ability to identify local areas of need and to respond with targeted measures [and] states enables them to act as laboratories for testing innovative approaches that can be adopted at state and national levels [to achieve a] healthy food environment.”

Severely restricted

One of the theories proposed by the researchers for the lack of action in these key food areas was that of local governments being overly restricted by their current resources, both in terms of funds and national policies to back them up.

“LGs are established by state legislation and confined in terms of their roles, in addition to having only limited capacity to raise revenue - This political and legislative context constrains local government action on food and nutrition,”​ said the study authors.

“[This is compounded] by an absence of supportive policy and legislative frameworks at state and federal levels restricts LGs’ capacity to respond to complex food system challenges.Further, some LGs do not view food as a political priority, while others lack the financial and technical capacity for policy development.”

What was not mentioned directly by the authors, but is certainly likely to play a major role here, is that the necessity for any implementation of mandatory reformulation policies or bans on unhealthy food marketing would require the LGs to go head-to-head with big companies such as food manufacturers and retailers – which would be near-impossible to pull off without the backing of a national level policy.

LGs’ current focus

So as opposed to tackling the more complex issues of reformulation and banning unhealthy food marketing, LGs have instead mostly opted to deal with less controversial matters.

For example, according to the study all of the LGs made food waste reduction and management a ‘central concern’​, with each rolling out projects such as compost bins provision and sustainability workshops.

“All LGs reported activities related to food safety and played a key role in enforcing regulation, such as the City of Sydney which initiated food safety prosecutions for unsafe food premises and was involved in prosecutions related to breaches of the Food Standards Code,”​ said the study.

Moving forward, the authors called for LGs to work towards the areas currently lacking such as product reformulation, if the aim is to create a healthy food environment for local consumers.

“We found opportunities for further action in several areas, including product reformulation, restricting unhealthy food outlets, restricting unhealthy food marketing, and applying food regulations to promote good nutrition,”​ they said.

“Further research is needed to understand the legislative and political constraints on Australian local governments, and how they can best leverage their powers and functions to encourage good nutrition within these constraints.”

Study: The role of Australian local governments in creating a healthy food environment: an analysis of policy documents from six Sydney local governments

Source: Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health

Authors: Reeve, B. et. al.

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