Health stars largely measure up but must be mandatory, says The George Institute

Shoppers understand and like the front of pack nutrition guide – Australia’s Health Star Rating (HSR). However, it is still only being displayed on around a third of packaged foods. The assessment that was published today also found that that the display is mostly on packaged foods those that score at the upper end of the five star scale.

In two papers published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health researchers examined how well the HSR had performed in Australia and New Zealand, and the role the food industry played in its early development.

Public health researchers from The George Institute for Global Health examined the labelling system and found that whilst Australia and New Zealand were among the first in the world to adopt this kind of innovative labelling, food industry influence on their development and implementation are preventing stars from reaching their full potential as a tool to improve public health.

The HSR is currently under review by the Government and has received submissions from stakeholders including health and consumer groups, government and the food industry. Recommendations are due to be presented to Federal, State and the New Zealand Governments at the end of June.

The summary paper – The performance and potential of the Australasian Health Star Rating system (PDF 1.3MB) - found that whilst consumers preferred the HSR ‘star’ graphic over the industry-preferred Daily Intake Guide that it replaced, there was little evidence to suggest it led to healthier purchases. Researchers also found that over a four year period the rating system was only present on between 20-28 per cent of eligible products, with 75% of these scoring HSR 3.0 or more.

While the government’s formal review has focused largely on the HSR algorithm to date, the paper highlighted other areas where the system could be improved. Australia could learn from Canada and France which require labels to be placed in a uniform position, size and colour to enhance visibility to consumers. Researchers also recommend improvements in how the system is managed, suggesting government should take leadership and responsibility for the science underpinning the HSR algorithm, and review terms for engaging with other stakeholders to protect the system from being undermined by commercial conflicts of interest.

Public health lawyer Alexandra Jones, from The George Institute, said despite concerns over vested interest there was still time to ensure the HSR government review reflects best evidence. “Unhealthy diets are the leading cause of death and disability in the world and our obesity rates are being fuelled by the abundance of packaged foods high in sugar, salt and fat.

“We categorically need labels that really do spell out whether a product is good or bad for us. Right now most unhealthy products simply don’t have the HSR being displayed on them. In fact, some products high in salt, sugar and fat are scoring too highly by gaming loopholes in the algorithm. It is critical the review address both of these concerns in order to deliver a system that works for consumers, not just for food companies.”

Public health advocate Michael Moore, a Distinguished Fellow at The George Institute, analysed the development of the HSR in the paper – Development of Australia’s front-of-pack interpretative nutrition labelling Health Star Rating system (PDF 1.1MB). The paper identifies how a number of obstacles from commercial interests were overcome. These obstacles included lobbying to block the scheme entirely and to have the HSR website removed. This was only done through the combined advocacy efforts of leading public health and consumer groups.

Mr Moore said:

“It was imperative that we promoted a unified voice and agreed on a set of principles, and that when necessary we spoke out publicly. We had to be prepared to stand up to industry on the one hand, but we also recognised that change could also only take place by working with industry where appropriate.”

Public health groups including The George Institute have called for the HSR to be mandatory, and for the algorithm to be improved. The first steps should be by incorporating added sugars, increasing penalties on salt content and removing undue benefits from protein.