A meeting tomorrow (20 July) of Australian government ministers from all jurisdictions could determine whether consumers are at risk of being misled by packaged foods carrying unsubstantiated marketing claims of a health benefit.
Australia’s two largest independent health groups, Cancer Council and the National Heart Foundation, are among a 12-member alliance of health and consumer organisations calling on governments to protect consumers from health claims that would not stand up to independent scrutiny.
The key concerns are that food companies may be able to put new products making health claims on the market before any independent verification – a recipe for misleading advertising at a time when diet-related health problems are on the rise.
Cancer Council Australia CEO, Professor Ian Olver, said the draft standard on health claims, developed by the intergovernmental Food Standards Australia New Zealand, recommended independent, pre-market verification of claims three years ago.
“Now all of a sudden, in response to what appears to be aggressive lobbying from food companies, there is talk of letting the companies substantiate their own claims and introduce products to the market even before they are independently analysed,” Professor Olver said.
“This could be a disaster at a time when Australia faces a surge of diet-related cancer incidence and when we are urgently encouraging consumers to make healthier food choices.
“When consumers purchase products that claim, for example, to boost your immune system or be good for your bones, buyers have a right to assume that such claims have been independently verified.
“We urge the intergovernmental forum to put the health of consumers first, by endorsing a system that requires the independent food regulator to scrutinise any new health claims.”
CEO of the National Heart Foundation of Australia, Dr Lyn Roberts, said informed consumer food choices had led to a reduction in cardiovascular disease burden in Australia over recent years.
“Now we are at serious risk of going backwards, with an obesity epidemic and an unprecedented proliferation of packaged foods making claims of a health benefit,” Dr Roberts said.
“For governments to endorse such claims without independent testing would undermine consumer confidence in the integrity of Australia’s food labelling system. We could end up in a situation where consumers couldn’t trust what they see on food labels.”
Professor Olver said that in Europe, where health claims are independently verified, only about one in 10 of those submitted by food companies was supported by independent analysis.