Consumers support tougher food laws

AUSTRALIANS support a tax on unhealthy foods and many want a total ban on junk-food advertising, research has found - the same measures the food industry has claimed would be too unpopular to succeed.

More than two-thirds of the 1500 primary grocery buyers surveyed were in favour of a tax, while traffic-light labelling on all packaged foods also received strong support.

But the government has so far refused to implement the same measures that are supported by the public, while the peak body for the food industry maintains ''traffic-light'' labelling of food by healthiness would not work. A leader of the Cancer Council of Victoria study, Jane Martin, said researchers were surprised that nearly 90 per cent of respondents had agreed that food manufacturers should be forced to cut fat, sugar and salt levels in processed foods.

''I was shocked at the high public support for regulation, yet that sentiment is not something that has come through so far in this debate,'' said Ms Martin, of the Obesity Policy Coalition. ''That comes down to the power of [the food] industry, who have lobbied very hard against regulation.''

Despite its own review of food-labelling laws and policy last year recommending traffic-light labels for food packaging, the government has not implemented such a strategy.

Instead, it has asked a committee, which includes Ms Martin, to come up with a front-of-pack labelling system that does not include traffic lights.

''They've said there is not enough evidence for it, so we have been asked to instead create something with no evidence behind it whatsoever,'' she said.

''This is despite hundreds of submissions from people saying there is evidence for traffic-light labelling and it helps consumers identify healthier foods.''

Parents of children aged two to 17 years reported television ads for junk food and toys or giveaways were techniques that most often led their child to ask for an unhealthy food product. Nearly 90 per cent of those surveyed believed the government should restrict the use of toys and giveaways.

A lecturer in health policy at the University of Sydney, Anne Marie Thow, said she was surprised by public support for interventions that food industry lobbyists claim would be unpopular.

About 70 per cent of respondents were in favour of taxation and subsidies and more than half agreed with a total ban on junk-food advertising, the study published in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia found.

''I think this research shows, actually, people would not see it as a nanny state to have regulation in place which allows them to not be on the receiving end of very heavy marketing of unhealthy food and beverages,'' Dr Thow said.

''It should be encouraging for the Department of Health to see people are supporting a healthy food supply.''

But the Australian Food and Grocery Council, which represents the packaged food, drink and grocery industry, described traffic-light labelling as ''overly simplistic''.

''It does not take into account all nutritional aspects of food, leading to carbonated soft drinks appearing healthier than fresh milk," said the council spokesman James Mathews.

"Extensive scientific literature internationally has demonstrated traffic-light labelling is not any more effective than other front-of-pack labelling schemes in enabling consumers to identify healthier choices."

This story Consumers support tougher food laws first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.