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New food ratings system gets a gold star for merit

Monday 24 June, 2013 by Patrick Gallus

Supermarket shoppers rejoice! From July next year a new clear and easy-to-read ratings system will begin to be introduced to the front of food packaging.

The Health Star Ratings system was announced last week by the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation – a body comprising state and federal government representatives. This has been developed by industry, consumer and public health groups, including the Obesity Policy Coalition of which Cancer Council Victoria is a partner.

It's a real win for consumers. We know that obesity and overweight are significant risk factors for cancer, and the implementation of the system will empower shoppers to easily look beyond marketing gloss and make healthier food choices. And am I the only one who squints and struggles their way through the nutritional information table on the back of the pack? The new system will see the key bits of this information placed prominently on the front of packaging so that consumers can compare products at a glance and make healthier choices.

Packaged foods will be rated from half to five stars based on their nutritional value. It's similar to how televisions and whitegoods are labelled for their energy efficiency: the more stars the better. There will also be icons detailing energy, saturated fat, sodium and sugars per hundred grams, as well as that for a single positive nutrient, like calcium or fibre.

It has been quite a journey to get to this point. The Commonwealth Government instigated a review of labelling law and policy by an independent committee in 2009. The outcome of the review, headed up by Dr Neal Blewett, included a number of recommendations, including for the voluntary introduction of a traffic light labelling system – like that presently being rolled out in the UK. The review concluded that this form of labelling, where coloured icons on the front of food packs indicate low, medium and high levels of individual nutrients, has consistently been found to be most effective in communicating the nutritional value of packaged foods.

Such a policy was, however, rejected in 2011. The forum has since been working to reach consensus on a new approach to bring about the report's recommendation for the development of an interpretive front of pack labelling system. A Project Committee was formed in 2011, which included public health groups, consumer and industry interests. And now, 18 months later, we have arrived at the Health Star Ratings system.

Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition and member of the Project Committee that saw the Health Star Ratings system recommended, said "a consistent interpretive front of pack labelling system has the potential to support shoppers to make healthier choices."

And at Cancer Council Victoria we're satisfied with the outcome; our CEO Todd Harper said the system was "an excellent step in improving health outcomes."

The next step will be implementation. Don't expect to be seeing stars on your next few visits to the supermarket – food and grocery groups now have a year to develop the system further, and the following year will voluntarily roll out the labelling. If after July 2015 industry has failed to apply the ratings system in a widespread and consistent manner, legislative measures will be put in place.

The Health Star Ratings System is a positive step for obesity prevention, and will help consumers make healthier decisions. But with 65 per cent of adults and 25 per cent of children overweight or obese, and with diabetes set to become our top disease of burden in the next five years, there is still much more to be done.

What do you think? Will the Health Star Ratings system make it easier for you when making choices at the checkout? Or should another method of labelling have been adopted? Comment below with your thoughts and questions.

Health Star Ratings 

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