Only eight hours after its official launch last Wednesday, the government’s long-awaited Health Star Rating website was pulled down, allegedly due to the intervention of a senior minister.
Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash and her chief of staff, former spokesperson for Kraft/Cadbury, Alastair Furnival are reported to have personally intervened by taking the site down only hours after its launch, SMH reports.
The website was developed to support the launch of the new health star front-of-pack labelling system for food and beverages, a system which has attracted criticism from industry bodies, including the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) and major food manufacturers.
According to the SMH, the website had received all the appropriate governmental approvals to go live, however a Health Department spokesperson said that the site was a ‘draft’, and made live in “an inadvertent error”.
Public health groups have rejected claims that the site was a ‘draft’ and have fuelled speculation that the website was pulled down due to industry influence.
''I looked at it very carefully, and there was nothing that struck me about it as being a draft,'' Public Health Association head, Michael Moore told SMH. ''It just doesn't make sense.'
Further explanation was given on Friday afternoon with a spokesperson for the Health Department stating that the website was taken down due to possible ‘confusion’ that the public may experience, as the labelling is not as yet appearing on products. The spokesperson also stated that the system was still to undergo a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis to ensure that associated industry impacts were considered.
"A website at this stage would be premature given that the cost-benefit analysis has not been done. It is prudent to wait for the finalisation of the cost-benefit analysis to fully inform decision making on this process," the spokesperson told ABC News.
The AFGC have supported Senator Nash’s decision to implement a broader cost-benefit analysis, stating that the scheme has not yet been ‘fully assessed’.
"Once the cost-benefit analysis has been completed, companies can make a proper assessment of the proposed scheme," an AFGC spokesperson told ABC News.
The Health Star Rating system received support from public health and consumer advocacy groups including Choice, who last year claimed that the system was under threat due to pressure from the food industry.
“We spent two years negotiating this new system with the food industry, represented by the Australian Food and Grocery Council . The new system incorporates a number of concessions sought by the AFGC but now it has turned around and launched a fierce campaign against the very system it helped to develop,” said Choice CEO, Alan Kirkland in a statement.
Labor health spokesperson, Catherine King said that any evidence of outside pressure to pull down the website would be concerning.
''I would be concerned, given the extensive work that has been done on the health star rating system … if there were any other influences involved.”