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NZ: Why the Health Star Rating System is good for New Zealand

It’s great news that Australia’s Health Star Rating System is coming to New Zealand. This was always very likely given the high level of integration of trans-Tasman food manufacturing, political commitments to Closer Economic Relations, and our shared food standards.

The Star system is ‘interpretive’. It shows ‘at a glance’ how healthy a food is on the front of packaging. There is evidence that such systems are particularly helpful to groups such as Māori, Pacific people and those on low incomes who are most at risk of obesity and nutrition-related chronic diseases.

Driven by concerns about the toll and cost of these diseases, Australian federal, state and territory ministers established the process leading to development of the Star system. Working groups were set up composed of public health and consumer representatives who strongly supported an interpretive system, and food industry representatives led by the Australian Food and Grocery Council who backed their own “Daily Intake Guide” (DIG) scheme.

The DIG scheme is non-interpretive, leaving it to consumers to make sense of statistics about how much of the daily intake of a nutrient (based on a 70kg male) is provided in a ‘serving’.

The commitment of Australian ministers to an interpretive system and strong leadership from a senior federal public servant helped bring about agreement between the parties. Public health advocates made concessions to keep the process going. Without this there would have been no government-backed interpretive labelling scheme.

The outcome is a system which is a huge step forward for public health, with New Zealand a beneficiary.

In Australia the Medical Association, Heart Foundation, Cancer Council, Public Health Association, Obesity Policy Coalition and national consumer organisation Choice are among those backing the Star system. The New Zealand equivalents of these organisations that have commented on the system have all endorsed it.

Some parts of the Australian food industry – particularly food manufacturers – remain lukewarm about the Star system, claiming it will be costly to implement and that the formula behind the star ratings sometimes produces questionable results. Others (notably Woolworths and Sanitarium) have expressed strong support. Woolworths (owners of Countdown here) say they will put the Stars on ‘thousands’ of their home brand products.

The Star system is voluntary for the first five years. From our experience with the food industry we, like many other public health supporters, think it should be mandatory.

Australian ministers have stated that the Star system will become mandatory if uptake by the food industry is unsuccessful. The Health Committee of the New Zealand Parliament also recommended this last year. It will be important to monitor progress, and to hold politicians to account over this commitment.

Progress can be measured by the speed and extent of the Stars appearing on our supermarket shelves. For most consumers, however, the healthiness of a food rates behind taste and price. For this reason, the greatest value of the Star system is likely to be its potential to drive manufacturers to improve the nutrition profile of their products.

Ten half-star steps – from half a star to five stars – enable manufacturers to progressively increase ratings through gradual product reformulation. Already Sanitarium are thinking about reformulating Marmite because of its high salt content.

Growing numbers of shoppers who understand and use the Stars will help push food manufacturers and retailers to implement the system further and faster.

Social marketing campaigns – funded by Government and continuing over a number of years – will be needed. The message can be simple. If you are deciding between two similar products, one with stars and one without, buy the one with stars. And if you are deciding between products that both have stars, buy the one with the most stars.

John White, Dr Robyn Toomath
July 2014

Find out more about the Health Star Rating System
Food Labelling (FOE)
Health Star Rating – new food labelling system (Ministry of Primary Industries, NZ)
The Health Star Rating Food Labelling System (Obesity Policy Coalition, Australia) PDF

Published on July 11, 2014 in Food labelling,Star rating labels