Australian and New Zealand food ministers today (27 June) agreed further steps to support the introduction of a front-of-pack nutritional labelling scheme – the Health Star Rating – but also signalled industry participation would remain voluntary.

In discussions at the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation in Sydney, Australian federal and state ministers gave the green light to re-start a scheme that had a controversial aborted introduction earlier this year.

The first website for the Health Star Rating system was pulled down and led to a scandal involving Australian health minister Fiona Nash that led to her chief-of-staff resigning. Alastair Furnival was accused of intervening, with some politicians pointing to his alleged links to the food industry. Nash insisted the decision to remove the website was hers only.

“It was just sensible not to let the website [earlier this year] go forward,’ she told Sky News. “The website was going to be very confusing for people without the education campaign.” There were, she added, “anamolies” on the initial site that had been ironed out.

At today’s meeting in Sydney, the New Zealand government agreed to join the scheme. The governments of both countries also agreed the Health Star Rating system would remain voluntary for the next five years, with a review of its performance planned to take place in 2016.

The Australian health ministers advisory council will host the Health Star Rating calculator and style guide until the launch of the HSR website. “This will enable industry to access the tools they need to implement front-of-pack labelling ahead of the launch,” Australia’s Department of Health said.

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Responding to the official sign-off of the scheme, Australian consumer group Choice called on the food industry to adopt the standard.

“We know that many shoppers are confused and frustrated by the current state of food labelling, in which the complex, numerical information on the back of packs is rendered even more confusing on those products which carry the food industry’s voluntary Daily Intake Guide percentages,” Choice CEO Alan Kirklan said.

“Now that ministers have given the final sign-off to the Health Star Rating Scheme, responsibility shifts to food manufacturers to start rolling out the star ratings on their product ranges…. Choice is today calling on food companies to ditch the dodgy Daily Intake Guide and embrace the Health Star Rating to help consumers make informed decisions about what they eat.”

Meanwhile, the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) welcomed the “conservative” approach adopted by regulators.

“There is acceptance that that it can be expensive for cash strapped companies to adopt major labelling changes and therefore a voluntary approach with an extended five year implementation period has been adopted,” AFGC CEO Gary Dawson stressed. “Ultimately it will be up to food companies to assess the scheme and determine whether or not they adopt it.”

Australia’s largest retailer, Woolworths Ltd, has already signalled it will begin implementing the scheme.

The company said it would roll out the new labelling system to “thousands” of own brand products. “Labels will be redesigned and packaging changed and Woolworths will work to ensure this is done quickly without causing disruption to our customers and our growers and suppliers,” the company said.

Pat McEntee, Woolworths’ general manager of supermarket operations, said: “This is another step in Woolworths desire to inspire a healthier Australia. Our partnership with global healthy food campaigner Jamie Oliver, our commitment to providing quality affordable fresh food and groceries and now this rating scheme all help our customers make better decisions about the food they buy for their families.”