In a Crikey piece published today, Dr Rosemary Stanton has subjected the composition of the Food Standards Australia NZ board to some critical analysis. Her conclusion is that the interests of public health are under-represented, especially in comparison with the strong representation of industry.

Does this matter? Why should public health interests be better represented?

Croakey has put these questions to various experts and will publish their comments as they land.

First off the mark is Mark Lawrence, an Associate Professor in Public Health Nutrition in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University.

He writes:

Protecting public health and safety is the primary objective in the setting and variation of food standards.  Certain food manufacturers are becoming increasingly aggressive in dressing up junk foods with a cocktail of ingredients and then using dubious claims and marketing strategies to promote their sale as being ‘healthy’ and ‘good for you’ – hence, there is particular need for a food regulator that is independent and sufficiently strong to protect the public from being exposed to a food supply increasingly dominated with junk foods and saturated with misleading and confusing food and health information.

The evidence highlights that the food regulatory system interprets the protection of public health and safety far too narrowly.

Whereas, the system is relatively strong and performs well in addressing immediate foods safety concerns, it is generally weak and full of empty rhetoric when it comes to protecting the longer term and more prevalent public health interests.

For example, on the major public health issues with which it has dealt, such as preventing misleading food and health labelling and protecting against excessive and inappropriate food fortification, the food regulatory system generally has chosen to ignore the evidence provided and concerns expressed by the public health community and instead capitulated to the aggressive lobbying of the junk food industry.

We increasingly see food products that are high in fat, salt and/or sugar (and of questionable environmental impact) being promoted to citizens as being ‘healthy’ and ‘good for you’ when clearly they are simply junk foods dressed up with a cocktail of nutrients and permitted by the food regulatory system to make dubious claims to an unsuspecting and trusting public.

Many public health practitioners are of the view that the broader political agendas within which the food regulatory system operates mean that it is inevitable that their evidence and concerns are not taken sufficiently seriously – the system’s decision-making record tends to support their view.

Frequently, these practitioners have expressed frustration that the system often is quick to state that it takes the protection of public health and safety seriously – yet too often, its practice demonstrates these statements ring hollow.

One of the clearest illustrations that the policies and activities of the food regulatory system have privileged the interests of the junk food industry to the detriment of public health interests is to simply observe how the profile of the food supply has evolved under the stewardship of the food regulatory system – the contemporary Australian food supply now is dominated by highly processed junk foods promoted with misleading and confusing food and health information.

In this environment, there is special need for the food regulator to be independent,  evidence-based and to start consulting more openly and constructively with the public health community if the public’s health is to be protected.