Dissenting reports by Senators inquiring into obesity mirrored industry positions in various ways
Industry played a role in shaping Australia’s Health Star Rating System
Example 1: Senate inquiry into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia
In May 2018, the Senate (one of the two houses of the Australian Federal Parliament) established the Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia. Select committees are appointed by the Senate to inquire into specific matters and report back to the Senate within a given timeframe (they are disbanded once they have delivered their final report).1 The terms of reference for the obesity inquiry focused on understanding the prevalence of obesity among children; the causes, health harms and economic burden; and evidence-based measures to prevent and reverse these trends.2 The inquiry was initiated and chaired by Greens senator Richard Di Natale. Other members of the committee comprised two Labor and two Liberal Party members, a One Nation member and an independent.
Major Australian food industry players made written submissions and gave evidence at public hearings held as part of the obesity inquiry (as did representatives of public health).2 Among those who both made written submissions and gave verbal evidence were the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the Australian Beverages Council, Nestle, Dairy Australia and Coca-Cola Australia. KFC made a written submission, stating that “all food has a role to play in a balanced diet, combined with appropriate levels of physical activity and exercise”.2
After considering 153 submissions and holding four public hearings, the inquiry tabled its final report on 5 December 2018. The report was unusual in that its 22 recommendations were only supported by two of the seven committee members (the Greens’ Richard Di Natale and independent Tim Storer). Two dissenting reports opposing key recommendations were put forward – one was a joint report by Liberal Party3 and One Nation4 members, and the other was by Labor members.5 A media report suggested that Labor senator Lisa Singh had initially indicated support for the committee’s recommendations but reversed her position after pressure to adhere to the party’s official policy from colleague Kimberley Kitching, resulting in the Labor senators’ dissenting report.6 Explored below are areas where the dissenting reports mirrored industry positions, even though the influence of industry in achieving these outcomes is not always apparent.
Support for key recommendations of the Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia
|Measure||Greens and Independent||Liberal Party and One Nation||Labor Party|
|Establish a National Obesity Taskforce within the Commonwealth Department of Health||Yes||No||Yes|
|Develop a National Obesity Strategy||Yes||Yes||?|
|Make changes to the Health Star Rating algorithm||Yes||No||?|
|Make the Health Star Rating System mandatory by 2020||Yes||No||No|
|Introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)||Yes||No||No|
|Introduce legislation to restrict discretionary food and drink advertising on free-to-air television before 9pm||Yes||No||No|
On a sugary drinks (SSB) tax, the Labor senators in their dissenting report said they “accept[ed] the logic than an SSB tax is likely to reduce consumption and accelerate reformulation efforts”, but this would not be effective without a suite of other, unspecified measures. This is consistent with the industry approach of positioning obesity as a complex issue in order to argue against any single solution, even when it is put forward as part of a comprehensive approach – see Arguments against an SSB tax in Australia
Regarding restrictions on marketing unhealthy food to children, Liberal Party and One Nation senators said they believed “self-regulation provides a robust, transparent and effective way … to respond to consumers’ concerns” and there was “no need for government to intervene or legislate”. This is despite major flaws with the current system – see Australia's system of regulation. The Labor senators also opposed legislative restrictions on free-to-air television before 9pm and instead recommended “a comprehensive review of the regulatory framework for food and drink advertising and marketing to children … to ensure the framework is fit for purpose in the contemporary media environment”.
Labor senators did not address proposed changes to the Health Star Rating System in their dissenting report, while Liberal and One Nation senators opposed making the system mandatory and said other proposed changes should be considered as part of a five-year review (for more information on the review see Health Star Rating System: proposed improvements). The Liberal and One Nation senators further noted that “the food and beverage industry has played an important role in developing the Health Star Rating System and is well placed to provide technical input”. Industry’s role in the development of the Health Star Rating System is explored below.
Example 2: Health Star Rating System
The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (the Forum) began the task of developing an interpretative front-of pack labelling system in 2011, in line with a recommendation of the Australian Government’s Labelling Logic Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy.7 The Forum embarked on what it described as “a collaborative design process with industry, public health and consumer stakeholders”. It stressed that the resulting food labelling framework “must strike a balance between seeking to ensure good public health outcomes and ensuring a strong and profitable food industry”.8 Many public health advocates believe that industry should not play a role in policy development but invited to contribute only at the policy implementation stage.9
Various multi-stakeholder committees were established to facilitate development of the Health Star Rating System. Particularly influential was a Technical Design Working Group which developed the algorithm behind the Health Star Rating System calculator (determining how many stars a product can display).8 Of the group’s eight members, four were selected for their industry experience, including one member who acted as co-chair (along with a representative of public health). In a study of the Health Star Rating System’s evolution drawing on interviews with key informants, four out of 10 participants said technical expertise offered by an employee from the food company Sanitarium Australia was crucial to the system’s development.10
Another example of industry input can be found in summaries of Technical Design Working Group meetings published on the Forum’s website.8 They include a reference to the group receiving a presentation from Dairy Australia on “anomalies specific to some dairy products”; and the group agreeing to modify the algorithm and circulate a revised version to stakeholders in response. (The dairy industry has welcomed changes to the system that have increased the star rating for some products but still has concerns about the ratings of other foods including “everyday cheeses” such as cheddar.)11
The behind the scenes influence of industry players was again highlighted when Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash and her chief of staff Alistair Furnival ordered the Health Star Rating System website to be pulled down shortly after its launch in February 2014.12 There is evidence that this was due to pressure on the Minister’s office from the chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, who believed the website was not ready to be made public.10 Senator Nash claimed it would be confusing for the site to remain online when stars had not yet been placed on the front of food packaging, however the website had been approved by the steering committee in charge of it13 and a public health leader involved in the system’s development said the website was always designed primarily for industry to begin using the system, and for curious consumers to find out what was coming.14
Senator Nash and Mr Furnival were embroiled in controversy over the intervention and Nash was accused of breaching ministerial standards for failing to declare Furnival’s strong links to the food industry. (Furnival had previously worked as a lobbyist for several food companies and was the co-owner of a lobbying firm that represented the food industry.) Furnival resigned from his position amid the fallout and the website was reinstated 10 months later, with significantly reduced content.15
For the latest developments on the Health Star Rating System including the outcomes of a five-year review, see Health Star Rating System: proposed improvements.