Health ministers vote to reinstate healthy food star rating website

State and federal ministers will reinstate a healthy food star rating system that was controversially pulled offline by federal Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash and her junk-food lobbyist chief of staff.

At a meeting in Sydney this morning they voted to reinstate the website, and affirmed support for the scheme that will allow food producers to adopt a voluntary system for comparing the healthiness of different types of foods.

Similar foods, such as cheeses or drinks, will be given a rating out of five based on their levels of both nutritious and unhealthy ingredients.

However, health and consumer groups have made significant concessions on the original scheme, which will now remain voluntary for five years rather than two, and will be used in conjunction with existing dietary intake guidelines.

Groups including the Public Health Association of Australia, the Obesity Policy Coalition, the Heart Foundation and the Cancer Council have lauded the move to reinstate the site, and a decision by New Zealand to join the scheme.

Shortly after the announcement food giants Woolworths and Sanitarium both announced they would adopt the stars across their entire range of products.

In December 2013 the ministers had already voted to endorse the health star system and committed to spent $11 million on it. At the time they had rejected a push by Senator Nash to undertake a regulatory impact assessment.

Freedom of information requests show the Department of Health warned Senator Nash at least a week before it intended to make the website introducing the site go live on February 5 this year.

She and her chief-of-staff, Alastair Furnival, who Fairfax Media later revealed co-owned with his wife a lobbying business that worked for the junk-food industry, insisted the site be pulled down on the grounds it was published in error.

Mr Furnival has since resigned.

The chief executive officer of the Public Health Association of Australia, Michael Moore, said now it was over to the food industry to adopt the system.

“There is a clear opportunity for industry to assist in tackling the obesity epidemic,” he said. “Consumers will appreciate the opportunity to have clear information the nutritional content of the food that they purchase and consume”.

Mr Moore, who helped develop the system with food and health representatives, said there had been compromises made since the site was taken down.

“Health groups have agreed that additional information can go on the package such as the Heart Foundation Tick or the industry’s own Daily Intake Guide,” he said. “Modification of the graphic to make it easier to use on a range of packets has also been agreed.”

CHOICE chief executive Alan Kirkland said it was "great news for consumers".

"We know that many shoppers are confused and frustrated by the current state of food labelling, in which the complex, numerical information on the back of packs is rendered even more confusing on those products which carry the food industry’s voluntary Daily Intake Guide percentages," he said.

He called on food manufacturers to abandon the daily intake guide and replace it with the food star rating scheme.

Australian Food and Grocery Council chief executive Gary Dawson said Senator Nash’s constructive approach to working with the food industry had led to “significant improvements” to the scheme, highlighting the five year roll-out and ability to be used in conjunction with the dietary intake guide as particularly important.

“The [Council] absolutely supports the right of companies to make their own assessment given ongoing concerns about aspects of the calculator used to determine a food’s star rating, and anomalies with respect to some food categories,” he said.

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