After three-year saga, health star rating labels finally ready to go

The health star rating system aims to provide convenient and easily understood nutritional information on food packs. eddie welker/Flickr, CC BY

Assistant health minister Fiona Nash has announced that Australian and New Zealand ministers responsible for food policy and regulation have signed off on the health star rating system for front-of-pack labelling.

The culmination of years of negotiation between health and consumer groups, government and the food industry, the announcement signals the start of the labelling system’s implementation phase.

The health star rating system, which echoes the one already in use for choosing energy- or water-efficient refrigerators and washing machines, as well as rating films and hotels, aims to provide convenient and easily understood nutritional information on food packs to assist consumers. Put simply, the more stars, the healthier the food.

It was developed by a project committee of industry, government, health and consumer organisations convened by the secretary of the health department.

The system was settled on as a compromise after the traffic-light system, which uses red, yellow and green spots to indicate nutritional value and was preferred by health and consumer groups, was rejected by the food industry.

Two small compromises

Today’s announcement includes compromises on two other contentious issues around food labelling. Food and drink packaging will now feature both health star rating and the industry’s preferred daily intake guide.

The industry-preferred daily intake guide: energy 675 kg; DI* 8%.

Food manufacturers have been using this system since 2006 and it remains popular despite an independent review finding it didn’t meet the requirements of an “interpretive” system.

Daily intake guide values are based on an average adult’s daily requirement of 8,700 kilojoules (kJ) and intended as a set of reference values for acceptable intakes of energy and a variety of nutrients. It currently features on about 7,200 products but there’s no evidence that it’s effective.

Another compromise is on the timeline for implementing the new labelling system.

People who have been following this issue will be scratching their heads about todays’ announcement because it appears to replicate one made in June 2013. The health star rating system was actually approved by ministers then but the project committee hadn’t quite finalised a few anomalies in the schema they’d created.

Time was needed to further develop the health star rating calculator, which is used to determine product ratings. The calculator is based on a system designed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand to allow industry to make health claims, and the evidence underpinning the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Guide to Health Eating.

The June 2013 ministerial meeting also announced the adoption of a two-year timeline for adopting the system (going beyond the project committee’s recommendations) and determined to make the system mandatory if industry hadn’t adopted it voluntarily after that time.

Ministers have approved the health star rating system, which will feature alongside the daily intake guide. Choice

After the change of government in September 2013, the first meeting of the relevant ministers was in December. At that meeting, the new Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash unilaterally decided to order a cost-benefit analysis of the new system.

Although it’s not been made public, chief executive officer of the Public Health Association of Australia and the co-chair of the Technical Design Working Group, which developed the rating system, Michael Moore, has said the analysis is complete. He has said it found quick implementation would be very expensive for industry but allowing a two or three-year phase-in would not.

Based on this information as well as another report ministers have called for the health star rating system to be:

implemented voluntarily over the next five years with a review of the progress of implementation after two years with a commencement date of 27 June 2014.

Ups and downs

Changing the food labelling system has been a long and turbulent process; health and consumer groups have been advocating a traffic-light system for over a decade.

But it all actually started when the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy was commissioned by the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council in October 2009, following a request by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

Headed by former health minister Neal Blewett, the review presented its report Labelling Logic in January 2011. It made a total of 61 recommendations for changes to Australia and New Zealand’s food labelling laws.

Traffic-light food labelling is what health and consumer groups wanted. UK Department of Health

But food ministers rejected the front-of-pack traffic light labelling at their next meeting and called for industry, government, health and consumer groups to work together towards a sensible compromise. They asked for an easy-to-understand system providing interpretive front-of-pack information.

The secretary of the health department then convened and chaired a project committee that presented an agreed position to ministers, recommending the health star rating system. The system was developed over the next two years and approved by the ministers in June 2013.

In February of this year, a website explaining the health star rating system briefly went live before being pulled down after intervention from Fiona’s Nash’s then-chief of staff, Alistair Furnival. It was subsequently revealed that Furnival retained links with the food industry, for which he had also previously lobbied and he ultimately resigned.

The website provided information on the new labelling system and access to the health star rating calculator. It’s unclear whether the new website will provide the same degree of transparency.

The Australian government knows that the type of foods people are consuming is a major reason behind the country’s high rates of obesity, and it’s important we make healthy choices easy. Despite all the compromises that accompany it, today’s announcement is a step in the right direction.