Food follies

Nash_CCA_13-08-2010_EGN_04_a300410-08-01_t460_croppedFiona Nash is Deputy Leader of the Nationals in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health. Back in mid-February there was a kerfuffle over taking down a food labelling site and the apparent conflict of interest of her then chief of staff, one Alastair Furnival.

The basic story is this. Food labelling has been under review for years by the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council. According to The Guardian back in Labor’s time the ministerial council approved a five star labelling system indicating food nutrition.

The website included a calculator that provided a star rating based on the ingredients and nutrient content of a food item, taking into account energy, saturated fat, total sugar, sodium, fibre, protein and fruit and vegetable content.

It’s a voluntary system. The website, specifically approved by the council, was to provide guidance to manufacturers and distributors who could then, if they wished, include the rating on the labelling. Meanwhile the site would be available to the public.

The staff of the department of health duly set up the site. Within hours Nash demanded that it be taken down. The public servants refused, saying they were working for the ministerial council. Furnival then intervened with their bosses, heavied them and the site came down. This shouldn’t happen.

Much of the controversy then was over Furnival’s former and possibly current links with sections of the food industry hostile to the project, what Nash told the senate about this, how she had to then provide ‘further information’ which was pretty much the opposite.

One bottom line is that Laura Tingle reckons Nash definitely misled the senate. On that basis she should have resigned or been sacked.

A side issue relates to the vetting of Furnival’s appointment in the PM’s Department. Andrew Elder points out that Peta Credlin, Abbott’s supremo, knew personally all about Furnival before he was appointed.

BTW who do you reckon is in charge here?


Elder also points out how dunderheaded and useless your average gallery journalist is.

All these interesting aspects distract attention from what Nash was really up to. She claims the site was premature. She has initiated a cost-benefit analysis which she says needs to be completed first. Other ministers who are part of the Council say that this analysis is a Commonwealth initiative and as such has nothing to do with the Council.

The real agenda seems to be a delaying tactic. The vote in favour of the site was narrow and Nash is hoping to revisit the issue with the prospect of a different result after the elections in SA and Tasmania.

Mike Daube, Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University, speaking to Peter Lloyd, reckons that’s not all she’s done.

Look I think the major issue now is not about one staffer who is gone but about whether the Federal Minister responsible for prevention understands the importance of prevention and will take the action that’s needed.

You look at the three big prevention priorities – tobacco, alcohol, obesity – and they’re also the three big priorities or three of the biggest priorities if we want to close the Indigenous life expectancy gap, and this Minister so far does not have a good record.

She’s scuppered a food labelling system, she’s defunded the major peak national alcohol treatment organisation and her party still accepts tobacco funding. So I think it raises much bigger question marks about Senator Nash than it does about the Mr Furnival.

I couldn’t agree more.

Problem is, there could be a cost to Radio National in reporting inconvenient material like that. I’m expecting a major push to kill off RN coming out of the current reviews of the ABC. I suspect the LNP sees RN as an unseemly steaming cesspit of lefties.

7 thoughts on “Food follies”

  1. A bit off topic but one of the things that annoys me about labels is that they take no account of water content. As a result something that contains a lot of water looks better that something with little water.
    We eat kJoules so it would make a lot more sense to express both good and bad items on a per kJoule basis. For example, if I compared the ice cream and lite milk in our fridge I get on a per 100 gm basis:
    Milk – 1.4 g fat, 4.9 g sugar vs 2,9 g fat, 17.3 g sugar for ice cream= ice cream is 0.0189 worse.
    On the other hand on a per kJoule basis:
    Milk .0072 fat, 0.052 sugar vs 0.0042 fat, 0.0189 sugar for ice cream. Using this more realistic comparison my ice cream is actually better than lite milk in terms of both fat and sugar!!!

  2. John, good point, but I presume the star rating system was to help people who are more mathematically challenged than you are.

  3. Brian: The data is already there for someone like me but it takes too much stuffing around if i am deciding what to buy.
    I am not sure how the star system works and to what extent it takes account of kjoules.
    When i think about it the best way to label might include kJoules per 100 gms (To help dieters on a kJoule budget.) followed by a table showing % kJoules from fat etc (To help choose which product to buy.
    Things like salt that have no kJoules would need to reported as something like ppm per 1000 kJoules.

  4. I don’t know about the water aspect John but the point of a star system is that is developed from dietary guidelines and reflects nutrient values – it’s not about dieting in the sense you are thinking of.

    The dietary guidelines are available here

    There would also be a whole lot of technical papers behind that, which would be guiding the ANZAS working group that developed the star system.

    So it’s really around what you should and shouldn’t eat to be healthy according to the guidelines – so a product that is high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, but provides little nutrient value, will get the lowest star rating – vs one that is high in nutrients but low in saturated fat, salt and sugar which will get a higher star rating.

    [Fixed, I think – Brian]

  5. Val: I think the system has to cater for those who want to control calorie intake as well as those who want to have the data that helps them make healthy food sources. The current labels provide the data needed to control calories in an easily understood form.
    The labels appear to provide the information needed to make some health choices but, in practice, they can be misleading when the water levels are different as I showed in the example @1. (However, if you do the sorts of calculations I did @1 what is there will allow you to work out what a proposed diet will do to things like salt intake, % of calories that come from fat etc. – But it can be misleading if I am trying to decide which yogurt to buy as I walk through the store.
    A properly designed star system would help considerably but it is only looking at individual foods in isolation. It may not help someone who is trying to keep overall levels of fat etc. while enjoying some foods that are bad, bad, bad.
    Variations of what I suggest would allow people to do diet calculations as well as being more helpful when trying to make decisions when buying.
    You are right of course. Getting salt, fat etc under control is only part of the healthy diet story. The form in which fats, sugars carbohydrates come is relevant for protecting against things like diabetes. We also need to be eating a mix of foods that provide the vitamins, fibres minerals etc required for a healthy diet.

  6. Val @ 5:

    1. Highlight and copy target URL.

    2. Highlight target link word in your comment.

    3. Click on “link” button above the comments box.

    4. Backspace to get rid of the highlighted “htpp://” stem in the box that opens. It doesn’t work if you leave it there.

    5. Right click, then paste.

    6. Click on “OK”.

    Hope that helps.

Comments are closed.