Food industry launches four-year-old health initiative

Food giants claim reformulation targets and decreasing product sizes will benefit consumers.
 
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01.Back to the future

healthier-aus-commitment

A group of big food companies has launched an initiative they claim will improve the health of Australians by reducing saturated fat, salt and energy (kilojoules) in processed foods.

With members including Campbells, Nestle, Pepsico and Coca Cola, the so-called ‘Healthier Australia Commitment’, sets targets for reduction by 2015:

  • 25% for saturated fat,
  • 25% for sodium, and
  • 12.5% for kilojoules.  

While these targets sound significant, it turns out these reductions will not be calculated over the three years between now and 2015. Rather, the new initiative is being backdated to 2008, with any reductions that have already been made over the past 4 years counting towards the ‘new’ targets. This means the industry is more than halfway through an initiative that has only just been launched. 

Averaging the reductions out over the 7 year period means there will be reductions of: 

  • Less than 4% per year for saturated fat, 
  • Less than 4% per year for sodium, and
  • Less than 2% per year for kilojoules.  

In addition to food reformulation, the Healthier Australia Commitment companies have committed to reducing package sizes. Dressing up shrinking packages as a health measure to benefit consumers is an old story, however, and one that more likely to benefit the bottom line of companies than the waistlines of consumers.  

What CHOICE wants 

Despite these smaller numbers, CHOICE would welcome any reductions in nutrients which would make processed food healthier for consumers. For example, the Food and Health Dialogue is a joint government, food industry and public health initiative established in 2009 with the purpose of reformulating food to address diet-related disease. 

Under a voluntary commitment by the food industry to reduce salt levels in nominated food categories, the Food and Health Dialogue reported significant reductions in those categories, which is good news for consumers.  

However, new research from The George Institute shows that despite the reductions in the Food and Health Dialogue categories, average salt levels in processed food overall have increased by 9%. Even in breakfast cereals, one of the Dialogue’s target categories, salt level rose by 8% overall.

CHOICE is pleased that food companies are admitting some responsibility for the increasing problems of obesity and diet-related disease and we commend the companies involved in the Food and Health Dialogue for any reductions in risk-associated nutrients over the next three years. However, we question the motive behind back-dating the start date and dressing up shrinking packages as a meaningful attempt to address diet-related disease. 

But we would also question whether the Healthier Australia Commitment is likely to have an impact, when the Food and Health Dialogue - with government and public health backing - seems to have had limited success. 

CHOICE will continue to campaign for labelling reform so that consumers can make informed decisions about the food they buy. Given the food industry’s recognition that they have a role to play in reducing the burden of diet-related disease, we look forward to continuing to work with industry, along with government and health groups, to develop an interpretive front of pack nutrition labelling scheme (like the traffic light system) that will enable consumers to compare products at a glance and healthier choices. 

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