A long way to go for Australia’s reformulation program

A long way to go for Australia’s reformulation program

In the first of a three-part series, our researchers take a deep dive into the Australian Government’s ‘Healthy Food Partnership’ to explore how this initiative aligns with the evidence.

We know that diet is the single biggest driver of obesity and non-communicable diseases in Australia. It causes avoidable conditions like kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Currently in Australia, one in four children and two in three adults are overweight or obese, costing the Australian economy close to $10 billion a year. These are big numbers with real-world consequences. If current trends continue, these statistics are only set to increase.

Healthy Food Partnership

To tackle this issue, the Federal Government established the Healthy Food Partnership (Partnership) in 2015, bringing together stakeholders from government, industry and public health groups. The Partnership agreed to “cooperatively tackle obesity, encourage healthy eating and empower food manufacturers to make positive changes to their product portfolios”. A nice idea in theory – but in practice, can corporate interests work with evidence-based public health policy?

Reformulation targets

At the top of the Partnership’s agenda was the introduction of a reformulation program. The purpose being to nudge the entire food supply in a healthier direction by gradually removing harmful nutrients like sodium and sugar.

In May 2020, the Partnership finally released its first wave of voluntary reformulation targets, which includes 27 targets for sodium and five targets for saturated fat. The targets cover popular processed foods including bread, cheese, pizza, savoury snacks, sausages and bacon. While this step forward is an important one, the Partnership has taken almost five years to get to this stage and our research has highlighted that more work is needed to ensure these targets can achieve meaningful reductions in sodium and saturated fat intakes across the nation.

We’ve found that almost half of all foods already meet the targets, indicating that the targets are weak and should be set at a lower level. There is also more work to be done to achieve a broader scope of targets. Our research has also shown that sodium targets are missing for key food categories including processed vegetables (e.g. pickled vegetables), edible oils (e.g. butter and margarine) and spreads and dips. Having additional targets for these foods is seemingly feasible given they are covered in the UK targets.

Voluntary vs mandatory targets

When we have a look at the evidence, it’s unclear why Australia has adopted a voluntary approach to reformulation, as it will only undermine efforts to cut sodium and saturated fat from the food supply. It’s particularly puzzling when we consider that mandatory targets have been implemented in other countries like South Africa and Argentina. We know there is little evidence to suggest that voluntary targets alone are effective unless they are implemented as part of a broader strategy that includes regular monitoring of progress and threat of government regulation if progress is not achieved. This will require the government to step into the fray, and whether they have the political will remains to be seen.

Corporate interests

Industry and public health groups can often be at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to nutrition policy. We’ve seen resistance from some industry groups in response to the Partnership with some stating that they do not support reformulation as a public health measure and others expressing concerns about the cost of reformulation and the impact on consumer acceptability. Yet public health groups are united on the importance of reformulation as a public health measure, including The World Health Organization who endorses sodium reformulation as a ‘best-buy’ for improving public health. If the purpose of the Partnership is to improve public health, are industry groups undermining the policy by bringing their corporate interests to the table?

Opportunities for the future

We’ve seen the government take bold steps to achieve improvements to public health. Banning smoking in playgrounds and inside restaurants and pubs is a great example of evidence based public health policy that saves lives. Perhaps it’s time the government did the same for the reformulation, a strategy that has the potential to significantly improve the health of the Australian population.

Daisy Coyle is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) in the Food Policy Division at The George Institute. In January 2018, Daisy commenced a Ph.D. at UNSW on evaluating the effectiveness of reformulation initiatives to achieve healthier Australian diets. Daisy holds a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Newcastle and Bachelor of Science (Nutrition and Metabolism & Physiology) from the University of Sydney.