The food industry can’t be trusted to make the rules

May 6, 2024
Unhealthy food concept - sugar in carbonated drinks. Sugar cubes as background and canned drinks

In 1964, the first US Surgeon-General’s report on smoking and health was published. The tobacco industry could veto the proposed members of the committee set up to write it. Today, the idea of giving the tobacco industry power over government processes would cause outrage. Likewise, the idea of big businesses or unions setting tax policy is absurd.

But when it comes to food policies, Australian governments hand over the steering wheel to the same companies that sell us popcorn chicken and advertise soft drinks to kids.

This matters, because we are what we eat, and it’s making us sick. Diseases caused by, or made worse by, an unhealthy diet are among the biggest killers in Australia. But instead of governments creating policies that help us improve our diet, we rely on the food industry to police itself. The industry sets its own homework, then gives itself top marks.

Australia’s recent history is littered with examples of bogus, voluntary policies cooked up by the food industry. As the examples of junk-food advertising, salt in manufactured foods, and sugary drinks show, self-regulation keeps failing, resulting in more heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and death.

In 2009, there were calls to limit advertisements for unhealthy foods before 9pm, so that children wouldn’t see them. Soon after, industry bodies launched their own voluntary code. Evidence shows that voluntary advertising schemes don’t work, so it’s no surprise that the code failed. But nearly 15 years later, Australia’s advertising policy is still designed by the food industry, not government.

Australians eat almost double the recommended maximum amount of salt, causing more than 2,500 deaths each year. Australia has a policy to reduce salt intake. But it is a ‘collaboration’ between government and industry, and food representatives on the program’s executive committee outnumber public health experts and government representatives.

The policy sets voluntary limits on how much salt can be included in different kinds of manufactured food, such as bread or biscuits. But it was set up for failure. It covers fewer types of food than similar policies overseas. The limits are too easy to meet, and a loophole lets companies exclude 20 per cent of the food they sell.

The biggest failure of all is that the food industry barely bothers to take part in the scheme it helped design. About three quarters of the food products covered are not participating. An even smaller proportion of products – only 4 per cent – have been changed to become less salty.

Predictably, the policy has failed. Since 2020, it has reduced daily salt intake by about 0.008 grams per person – the weight of two grains of sand.

Yet another example is sugary drinks, which have little or no nutritional value, and are linked to weight gain, diabetes, and dental decay.

After calls for a tax on sugary drinks, an industry body set up its own voluntary scheme, pledging to reduce sugar by 20 per cent over 10 years. They hit that target, but it was only a victory for spin. They counted gains made before the scheme even started, and the target only required a continuation of previous trends.

Only four manufacturers signed up to the pledge. Ironically, they achieved an even smaller decrease in sugar than manufacturers who didn’t sign up. And now things might be going backwards. Evidence has emerged that the sugar in popular soft drinks Fanta and Sprite has increased by 40-to-60 per cent since 2021, when the industry loudly proclaimed that it had reduced the sugar in these drinks.

The UK took another path, introducing a tax on sugary drinks, which has worked much better. Sugar fell by more than twice as much in about half the time. The UK isn’t alone. There are taxes on sugary drinks in more than 100 other countries. But there’s none in Australia, despite calls from doctors and dentists, and majority public support.

In our new Grattan Institute report, we show that a tax on sugary drinks would get manufacturers to reduce the sugar in their drinks, get consumers to switch to healthier options, and help make us a healthier country.

Again and again, governments fail to learn the lesson, and keep hoping that companies will put health first. It’s companies’ job to make profits. But it is the government’s job to set the rules and make sure those profits aren’t coming at the expense of Australians’ health.

Voluntary, industry-led food policies give the illusion of action, but they are only a tactic to block real change. It was naive of government to give industry the policy reins in the first place. Now, after decades of failure, it is just plain irresponsible.

The federal government needs to show leadership and catch up with the rest of the world. Other countries have introduced policies to tax sugary drinks, ban toxic trans fats, require front-of-pack food labels, and restrict promotion and discounts of unhealthy foods.

Australia has done none of these things. This is despite polls showing that many of these policies have majority and growing public support.

Without tougher policies to improve what we eat and drink, rates of chronic disease and disability will continue to rise. No single policy can fix this problem, but a tax on sugary drinks is an obvious place to start.

Peter Breadon is Director of the Health Program at Grattan Institute and lead author of Grattan’s new report, Sickly sweet: It’s time for a sugary drinks tax.

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