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Review into ‘gaming’ of health star system

Jack Baker, ECU Reporter

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Stakeholders in the food and beverage industry, government, health organisations and the public have recently given input into a planned review of the Health Star Rating (HSR) system.

Michael Moore, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), has said while the national HSR system has faults, he is strongly committed to its continued implementation.

Moore, who has been heavily involved in the development of the HSR and sits on its advisory committee on behalf of the PHAA, said there have been issues with certain products, but that the system itself was not inherently flawed.

“We are aware that a review done by the New South Wales Government showed we had about 88% alignment with government dietary guidelines. We don’t think that’s good enough and that’s part of the reason we asked for the review.

“We want to make sure we get the closest possible alignment, but it will never be perfect because one system is based on nutrients the other is based on whole foods. But it is very easy to interpret, it’s like hotels or movies. You know what a 3 or a 4 star is and the work that’s come out of evaluating that has been in the favour of the health star system,” he said.

The PHAA has also asked for the oversight committee to include a person with a background in a public health and a nutritional science background.

The five-star system has been criticised in the past for misrepresenting the nutritional values of certain food products. Popular chocolate and malt powder Milo was notably lambasted for its 4.5 star health rating – with the proviso that it was mixed with skim milk, while other products can be seen as being unfairly maligned.

“Milo by itself is 1.5 stars, to put up a 4.5 star rating was clearly a ruse and it’s something that even before the review, the advisory committee was looking at. What we allowed is dry soup. Dry soup gets a poor rating because of sodium, add water it becomes the same as soup in a tin. That’s why we’re in the process of sorting them out,” Moore said.

Consumer advocacy group Choice, which also has a member on the HSR advisory committee, has been critical of food companies’ use of the rating system. Among the five asks listed on their website aimed at improving the HSR is a request to make sure that companies can’t claim a high rating based on mixing with something more nutritious.

In an article on Choice’s website titled Food giants sugar-coating the truth, Katinka Day wrote:

“Health stars were introduced to help consumers make healthier choices. We’re disappointed that food manufacturers are abusing the system to promote nutrient-poor foods as a healthier option. We congratulate these companies for getting on board with health stars, but it’s not useful to consumers when they game the system to make their products seem healthier.”

James Matthews, director of communications for the Australian Food & Grocery Council (AFGC), said “the representative body was not out to present false claims to consumers and welcomed the review”.

“The health star rating system has always been a project between industry, public health groups, consumers and the Government … it does a pretty good job and we’re happy with it. We’re always open to a proper review. We sit on the Health Star Rating oversight committee and we are involved in the process because we have the technical knowhow and understand how it can be applied to certain foods. We know the limitation of the scheme,” he said.

“We have a variety of consumer information. We are an industry association and we represent our members and our varying interests. We also want practical outcomes into providing consumers information and the Health Star Rating is one of those systems available.”

Moore, for his part, welcomed the participation of industry groups in the advisory committee for being able to help sort out some of these inconsistencies and manipulations.

“The thing that was very interesting and different to what we do with alcohol and tobacco is that the only way to implement it was with industry agreement. Even if the HSR was made mandatory by the government you still need industry because it’s complex and can easily be manipulated. We do want to work with industry because we’ve seen it manipulated. It wasn’t wrong, it was a manipulation of the system,” he said.

The findings of the review are expected to be provided to the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation in 2019.

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Review into ‘gaming’ of health star system