Australia and New Zealand have set out plans to introduce a front-of-pack “health star” rating system for packaged foods on sale in the countries.

Announcing the move, Australia’s minister for health, Tanya Plibersek, said the scheme will support consumers to make “healthier choices” by providing “at-a-glace” information.

However, Australian food manufacturers, which has worked with government on the programme, insisted the proposals, in their current form, were “flawed”.

The health star system will apply to packaged, manufactured or processed foods and will consist of a star rating scale of ½ a star to 5 stars, with ½ star increments and a “slider” above the relevant star/half star with the corresponding number to highlight the star rating of the food.

Australian parliamentary secretary for health and ageing Shayne Neumann said: “In short, the more stars, the healthier the food.”

He insisted the system would “contribute to alleviating the burden of chronic disease, overweight and obesity issues in Australia”.

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Neumann emphasised the scale of the obesity issue in Australia where, he said, more than 4m people are obese and 10m people are overweight.

“One in four children are overweight or obese,” he stressed. “Overweight translates into chronic diet-related diseases, hospitalisations and a significant rise in long-term care so this is a significant step in assisting consumers make informed choices.

The star rating is underpinned by a modified nutrient profiling scoring system, he added. Packaging will also be required to carry nutrient information for saturated fat, sugar and salt. Food manufacturers will also be given the opportunity to display positive nutrient information, such as calcium content.

Regulation of the new labelling system will be overseen by bi-national government agency Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, with changes due to go into force in both countries through the food standards code. However, interpretation of the code and its enforcement remains at a local level. 

Responding to the announcement, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, which represents food manufacturers in Australia, suggested the proposals were “rushed out” and added that “serious flaws” remain.

Specifically, AFGC CEO Gary Dawson emphasised the financial impact the move would have on food manufacturers. “The food industry is expected to carry the $200m cost of implementing this scheme while also dealing with an additional regulatory burden. If industry is going to make this investment in a new FoPL system, it must be based on sound and credible science, effective in communicating with consumers and practical and attractive for industry to implement.”

Dawson argued that before the food sector is asked to carry such a burden certain issues needed to be resolved. “An effective FoPL system will need to resolve issues such as how the star system is calculated to avoid anomalous ratings that will undermine the credibility of the scheme and potentially mislead consumers. It will also need to address whether there will be substantial funds to educate consumers on how to use the labelling for healthy diet selection and if the government is prepared to undertake a robust and credible cost-benefit analysis,” he said.