A new Deakin University report that ranks the nutrition policies of Australia's biggest food and beverage manufacturers found only half received a passing grade, identifying they could all be doing far more to address Australia's serious obesity problem.
Companies included on the list were Australia's biggest according to market share, and their scores ranged from three out of 100 at the bottom, to 71 out of 100 at the top.
The 'Inside our Food and Beverage Manufacturers' report did not assess the healthiness of specific products, but examined 19 companies' policies and commitments related to obesity prevention and nutrition.
It's the first time Australia's food manufacturers have been put under the microscope in this way, and follows the release of a similar report into the nutrition policies of Australia's largest supermarkets last month.
The report's lead author Associate Professor Gary Sacks, a Research Fellow at Deakin's Global Obesity Centre, said most companies assessed in the report had acknowledged their responsibility for being part of efforts to improve population diets, and had some related policies and commitments in place.
"The areas of strongest performance included companies reporting some action to reformulate products to make them healthier, and an increasing commitment amongst companies to implement the Australian Government-endorsed Health Star Rating food labelling system," Associate Professor Sacks said.
But he said the food and beverage manufacturers varied substantially in their policies and commitments, and there was considerable room for improvement for all companies.
"Food and beverage manufacturers need to implement a broad range of actions to contribute to societal efforts to prevent obesity and improve population health," Associate Professor Sacks said.
"Unhealthy diets are creating a public health crisis in Australia. This has a high cost to the economy, including large impacts on the health care system and productivity.
"For food companies, this is not just about social responsibility, it's also about long-term business sustainability. Investors are increasingly focused on company contributions to the health of all Australians, and how this links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nutrition is considered a component of all 17 of these goals."
'Inside our Food and Beverage Manufacturers' sets out three priorities for companies to make a positive contribution to obesity prevention and population nutrition.
- Promotion to children - Strengthen existing commitments on marketing to children so that they successfully reduce the exposure of children and teenagers to the promotion of 'less healthy' foods.
- Product formulation - Set specific targets and timelines to reduce added sugar, salt, saturated fat and artificially produced trans-fat content in products, and report on progress.
- Nutrition labelling - All companies to commit to implementation of the Australian Government's Health Star Rating across all relevant products.
"A key point, backed up by other research, is that the current voluntary commitments to reduce marketing to kids are ineffectual, so companies need to tighten up their policies and actions in the area," Associate Professor Sacks said.
"Their current promises are full of loopholes. While they promise not to directly target children, this doesn't prevent unhealthy food advertising in prime-time when the highest number of children are watching.
"Some companies also promise not to sponsor 'children's' sporting events, but that still doesn't cover the major professional sports, like the AFL, that are extremely popular with children and families."
The data compiled in the report was gathered from publicly available information (collected up to the end of 2017) as well as company policy information provided by company representatives. It was then assessed using the 'Business Impact Assessment - Obesity and population nutrition tool' developed by INFORMAS, a global network of public health researchers that monitors food environments worldwide.
This tool considers company policies and commitments across six key domains related to obesity prevention and nutrition: corporate strategy, product formulation, nutrition labelling, promotion to children, product availability and affordability, and relationships with external groups.
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