Food groups reject policy exclusion call

Marnie Banger

The powerful food industry has been accused of mimicking tactics used by tobacco companies to stifle Australian regulations and stall reforms to help people be healthier.

Consumer advocate group Choice's chief executive Alan Kirkland has made the claims at a Senate inquiry into obesity, and called for regulations to be protected from food companies' sway.

Food industry groups, however, say they are key to addressing Australia's complex obesity epidemic.

Mr Kirkland said Choice has evidence of food companies using tactics such as discrediting research they don't agree with and funding their own.

They have also been developing voluntary, self-regulated schemes that have helped them avoid real regulations, he said.

"This set of tactics leads to regulation being delayed, initiatives being watered down and an overwhelming lack of progress in making it easier for consumers who want to make healthy choices to do so," Mr Kirkland told the inquiry in Sydney on Monday.

He said guidelines that now protect tobacco regulations from being influenced by commercial interests should also apply to food.

"It would be outrageous to invite tobacco companies to the table to help draft tobacco control laws. So why would we give food and beverage lobbyists a similar level of influence in debates about food and health policy?" he said.

However Food and Grocery Council chief executive Tanya Barden said the industry is taking obesity seriously.

She said many of the positive steps the industry has taken so far - such as product reformulations and labelling changes - would have been challenging to achieve if the government took mandatory approaches and excluded it from policy debates.

"The industry is instrumental to providing solutions," she told the inquiry.

"Its use should not be limited to ensuring effective implementation."

Ms Barden said the industry disagrees with some regulatory changes, such as taxes, because evidence of their effectiveness in reducing obesity is limited and they come with costs to consumers and industry.

Australian Beverages Council chief executive Geoff Parker said there is more everyone can do to tackle obesity, but stressed the food and drink industries must be involved in changes.

"Any suggestion that industry should only be consulted at implementation stage is farcical," he said.

Australians are also being influenced directly by food companies through manipulative advertising and misleading labelling, Mr Kirkland said.

He said a national strategy is needed to deal with Australia's obesity epidemic.