Healthy Food Partnership – Opportunities and Challenges

It’s  almost six years since the Healthy Food Partnership (HFP) began when Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash announced a new partnership of preventive health groups, food industry bodies and government to cooperatively tackle obesity and encourage healthy eating.

To date there has been active participation of the AFGC and wider food industry in the HFP to support the Government’s National Preventive Health/ Obesity strategies.  While the intent of the Partnership is commendable “to encourage Australians to eat healthy foods, support food companies to make positive changes”, tangible outcomes are limited despite major efforts by those people on the Executive Committee and working groups, and companies which have pledged to the reformulation program.

Why should the industry continue to engage when there is a constant drum beat from public health advocates to mandate through regulation the composition, advertising, sale, and nutrition labelling of foods (such as added sugar) in order to influence consumer eating habits?  See recent articles here and here.

Outcomes of the HFP include:

·       Evidence base – The Portion Size Working Group’s (PSWG) undertook research (see A rapid review of evidence – Effective portion size strategies) developed key recommendations, including an industry engagement strategy.

·       Fact sheet  – The terms used to describe the amount of food and beverages that Australians consume have been reviewed by the Portion Size Working Group, and a factsheet has been developed.

·       Industry Serving size guide – A voluntary best practice guide on serving size to provide Industry with guidance and support for recommended serving sizes for key discretionary foods and drinks is in development by the Industry Best Practice Guide Working Group (IBPGWG). A stakeholder survey has just closed (see here) and results are being analysed by the working group with the aim to have the guide available next year.

·       Reformulation targets – The Reformulation Working Group (RWG) developed a prioritised list of nutrients (sodium, sugars and saturated fat) and food categories to which reformulation goals and targets apply.

·       The program of voluntary targets of two waves (see here) began in July 2020 and participating companies which pledged participation will  report on progress in:

o   June 2022 and June 2024 for wave 1

o   June 2023 and June 2025 for wave 2

o   June 2023 and June 2026 for breakfast cereals.

The industry has joined collectively in actions such as the Food and Health Dialogue (from 2010-13) and the current HFP because these initiatives demonstrate that the food industry is able to participate collaboratively in addressing preventive health issues without the need for regulation of their business activities.

Voluntary reformulation – which has been endorsed by the World Health Organization as a non-communicable disease prevention strategy – does result in changes to the nutrient composition of packaged foods without having to resort to mandated compositional nutrient limits.

As people working in the food industry, we know first-hand there are many technical complexities in reformulating that take time and costs in changing foods.  Thus, it is important that preventive health strategies, such as the HFP, are strongly supported by consideration of the current evidence base as well as the practicalities of innovating and reformulating the food supply.

Reformulation relies on small and gradual improvements. The more food products are reformulated, the bigger the beneficial impact on health. Reformulating the majority of products reduces the risk that consumers would switch to a non-reformulated product and ensures that the whole population benefits from reformulation. It also means that there is an even playing field for food businesses.

The AFGC remains committed to supporting the HFP but only if the current challenges faced by the food manufacturing sector are being factored into the Partnership and its expectations for industry engagement are reasonable and achievable.