A national effort by government, industry and experts to make foods healthier have failed, according to a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
Targets to reduce fat, sugar and salt in processed foods under a federal government program haven’t been met, researchers say.
“The huge quantities of salt, sugar and fat added to the food supply by industry are now the main cause of ill health in the country,” he said.
The researchers call for sanctions against the food industry if it fails to meet targets.
The Food and Health Dialogue was launched in mid-2009 to improve the nutritional profile of foods and help educate consumers about their diets.
However, targets were set for just 11 out of a possible 124 action areas (8.9%) in the first four years and none have been delivered, the research shows.
And there’s also no evidence that any of the proposed educational programs have been implemented.
“Poor diet is now an even bigger cause of ill health for Australia than smoking,” said Professor Neal.
“Unfortunately, while the government has been doing a stellar job on tobacco control, it’s not doing quite so well in the food space.
“Clearly this is a complex and ongoing process. Some companies have been making a real effort, but if you look at the big picture progress has been depressingly slow.”
Professor Rob Moodie, a co-author from the University of Melbourne, said the system currently relies on the voluntary engagement of industry.
“Powerful industry lobby groups like the Australian Food and Grocery Council are stifling action.”
The authors compared the Dialogue to successful programs in the US and the UK and highlight the need for strong leadership, transparency and regular reporting.
Jane Martin from the Obesity Policy Coalition said the UK experience has shown these types of initiative can be effective but action in Australia is occurring at a glacial pace.
“If we don’t want to be the first generation to outlive our children, then we need to get serious about improving diets, particularly in children,” she said.
“We need meaningful targets, with sanctions for non-compliance and we need the government to take a strong stance and lead the way on this.”
The key recommendations of the study:
- Government and public health groups must set the policies. The food industry must deliver them. Government needs to take a stronger leadership role.
- Clear targets and timelines, with consequences for non-achievement. Enforcement if voluntary measures fail to deliver. Currently, business incentives all push for the addition of more salt, fat and sugar in order to maximise profit.
- Better transparency and reporting. The successes and failures of individual industry players need to be highlighted, with easy community access to information that will empower consumer choices.
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