Fruit growers and processors say they are crushed by a decision to cut the health star rating (HSR) for 100-per-cent no-added-sugar juices from five stars to as low as two stars.
The decision came down to a vote at the Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, a group made up of state and territory ministers as part of its ongoing response to the five-year HSR review.
Food is rated from half-a-star to five stars depending on how its healthy and risk nutrients compare but the system has come in for criticism.
The federal government’s aim in developing the ratings is to give shoppers an easy way to identify better choices of packaged and processed foods, something Agriculture Minister David Littleproud asserts is undermined by this decision.
“What I don’t accept is the insanity of this decision, which really has no basis on nutritional value — it really just is mind-numbingly dumb,” he said.
Last chance to improve the HSR
The forum’s July communique revealed Mr Littleproud’s initial push — to see 100-per-cent fresh fruit and vegetable juice with no added sugar receive an automatic HSR score of five stars — not supported and the review recommendations were maintained.
The Minister’s last chance to improve the rating was Friday’s meeting, when he put forward a proposal aiming for an automatic four HSR, a rating he said was supported by the Commonwealth and the farm industry.
“This was it, this was my second crack at it. I had a go in July and got rolled and then rolled again,” Mr Littleproud said.
“It would appear that our bureaucrats are working off some other scientific sheet that what reality is.”
Orange industry outrage
Citrus Australia chief executive Nathan Hancock said he was disappointed with the decision.
“It sends a really poor message to our consumers, who, let’s face it, need to have more fruit and vegetables,” he said.
“Being told that diet soda is better for them than a juice product, we think, is confusing.
“Ministers across the country were given the opportunity to review the information that we provided them on the health benefits of natural juices, and unfortunately states like Queensland let us down.”
Mr Hancock said the forum had overlooked the nutritional benefits of drinking juices that cannot be gained from a manufactured product with artificial sweetener.
“The message that they’ve been giving us is that they want people to drink more water, because it’s better for hydration, and they want to take sugar out of the diet,” he said.
“Because diet soft drinks have artificial sugars, it elevates them above juices which have natural sugars.”
Casualty of the war on sugar
Mr Hancock said the campaign against sugar was painting every type of sugar in a bad light.
“The desire to stamp sugar out of the consumers’ diet has been misconstrued and taken off in a different direction,” he said.
“There’s so many other products consumers are eating these days, unwittingly eating sugar — it’s added sugar, it’s not naturally in the product.”
Mr Hancock said although he was not sure in reality how many people used the HSR when selecting products, it was bound to have a knock-on effect.
“If you do use that system and you let it guide you in the choices that you make, then you’re going to be given a bum steer here.
“The other effect is that producers will stop using the HSR system on their products.
“They don’t have any faith in it, they don’t trust it — it’s sending a poor message to the consumer and I think we’ll see businesses stop using it.”
Producers remove rating
Major juice processors like Nippy’s in South Australia are disappointed in the outcome and fear the new downgraded rating will have a significant impact on the industry.
Jeff Knispel, joint managing director of Nippy’s group of companies, said the decision to rate Diet Coke higher than fresh juice was counterintuitive.
He believed a health star rating implied a full package of health benefits.
“If you take out all of the nutrients in how you score well in this rating system and focus on sugar, the question is then raised: ‘Well, why are we calling it a health star rating?’
“If you are so insistent on the sugar focus, why don’t you call it a sugar star rating, because to call it a health star rating is bordering on deceptive.”
Nippy’s companies in South Australia alone produce about 12.5 million litres of juice per year.
Mr Knispel said they now decided to remove the health star rating from their packaging to limit the negative impact on their products.
“As a company, we don’t want to promote a negative message with anything we do with our packaging, so we will remove the logo.
“It’s not good news for us, but we will just deal with it as best as we can.”
Citrus SA chair Mark Doecke said the group feared it could be faced with less fresh fruit sales, impacting growers and processors.
“If you look at sugar only, of course the Diet Coke has got less sugar in it so it is going to get a higher rating, but it’s a bit of a silly way of looking at a product,” he said.
Risking food waste
Granite Belt Growers Association vice president Nathan Boronio said it certainly made him question the relevance of the HSR.
“I can’t understand why they would want to encourage people to move away from fresh fruit juice.”
He said he feared the worst outcome would see people shying away from fruit juice, reducing demand and resulting in fruit being wasted.
“We want to ensure that fruit wastage in this country is reduced; if you discourage people from drinking apple juice, we are going to have more apples being dumped.”
Mr Hancock shares those fears and said he was worried about what would happen if juice was widely thought of as unhealthy.
“As an industry we can’t afford to have that happen.
“There’s a lot of pressure on growers to look at what variety of crop they grow — we might start to see this isn’t a viable industry for them into the future, and we may see less and less orange juice produced in Australia.”