The Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation has approved proposals to regulate food manufacturers' products nutrition content and health claims.
These new regulations will create stricter controls over on-pack health claims, including the need to provide scientific evidence to support claims and meet specific eligibility criteria including nutrition criteria.
The move came on the same day the Gillard Government announced a range of measurers to bolster the strength of Australia's manufacturing sector – promising the first round of the $236 million Industrial Transformation Research Program will focus on food research.
Meeting in Brisbane on Friday the various ministers considered the review report for the draft Standard for Nutrition, Health and Related Claims provided by the Board of Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and agreed to enact new laws early next year that will regulate the voluntary use of nutrition content and health claims, general level health claims, and high level health claims.
These changes will force manufacturers to have health claims such as 'calcium is good for strong bones' to be supported by either pre-approved or industry self substantiated, while the higher level health claims, such as 'calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis' will require pre-approval by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
"All health claims will be required to be supported by scientific evidence and will only be permitted on foods that meet specific eligibility criteria, including nutrition criteria," the ministers said.
"The new Standard aims to ensure that consumers can have confidence that health claims are evidence based.
"When gazetted, food businesses will have three years to meet the requirements of the new Standard."
During this three year grace period FSANZ will carry out additional work such as the refining of the nutrient profiling scoring criteria, and the development and implementation of processes to maintain scientific currency of pre-approved food-health relationships.
The new regulations have been supported by CHOICE, which stated that the decision, and the nutrient profiling score, is positive for consumers and helps to provide an objective benchmark for food healthiness.
“These nutritional criteria were agreed following extensive work by the independent regulator and provide a robust and objective approach to determining which food products are healthy enough overall to carry health marketing claims,” CHOICE spokesperson Ingrid Just said.
Following the announcement Uncle Toby's will move to ensure all of its 44 breakfast cereals meet the new criteria.
The manufacturer explained that it is part of the company's wider five year plan to reduce fats, sugar, and sodium in its products.
"Today, we are committing to consumers that by the end of January our entire range of UNCLE TOBYS cereals will meet the nutrition eligibility criteria of the new standard, meaning that every one of our cereals could carry a health claim,” Uncle Toby's nutrition manager Nilani Sritharan said.
Despite agreeing with the move, CHOICE felt that the decision to allow food manufacturers to evaluate the evidence behind the health claims, as opposed to independent regulators, damages consumer confience.
“This is a major step backwards from an earlier proposal that would have required the independent regulator to scrutinise new claims, which was scuttled after an intense industry lobbying campaign,” Just said.
“When we look at what happened in Europe, where the European Food Safety Authority rejected 80% of the health claims put forward by food companies, we can see that the food industry has a very different idea of what constitutes scientific evidence to independent regulators."
However the move by the government group has not been universally welcomed.
The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) was quick to slam the new regulations, claiming that it "will stifle innovation and industry competiveness".
"Today’s decision by the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation to impose additional regulation on nutrition content and health claims will result in unnecessary costs, discourage innovation and reduce trade competitiveness of the food processing sector," it said.
AFGC chief Gary Dawson decried the new regulations as regressive step, saying that "the Australian food processing industry needs policy reform that bolsters business competitiveness. Unfortunately the Commonwealth and the majority of members of the Forum on Food Regulation have ignored the advice of the AFGC and those states representing the bulk of the food manufacturing sector.
“The new Health Claims Standard is a disproportionate response to a non-issue that will discourage innovation in food products, increase regulatory costs, discourage investment and ultimately pose a competitive disadvantage for domestic manufacturers."
He went on to say that “this decision comes just two days after the Government announced its commitment to reduce red tape and review unnecessary regulation. It is also inconsistent with the broader policy emphasis on reshaping the manufacturing sector to take advantage of the Asian Century.
“In the current difficult trading environment any additional regulation or impost that adds to costs runs a high risk of pushing production and jobs offshore.
“Instead of streamlining approvals, the new standard will impose an onerous substantiation process that goes well beyond equivalent regulation in Europe or US.”
On the sidelines
While the main focus was on the new health and nutrition claims, the food minister also noted progress for labelling across a number of different areas.
Regarding front of pack labelling, the ministers said the collaborative process to develop a new rating system has progressed well.
They also noted that the review of the Policy Guideline on the Addition of Caffeine to Foods is underway, with public consultation on the Policy Guideline scheduled for March next year.
The agreement for an Australian standard on country of origin labelling to include all unpackaged meat products was welcomed by CHOICE.
“We know Australian consumers have a strong desire to know where their food is produced, and this is a welcome move to close one of the key country-of-origin loopholes,” Just stated.
Minister at the forum also sought to push a review on the proposed standard for low THC hemp as a food, with ministers to seek advice from the Standing Council on Police and Emergency Services.