Health policy consultant Margo Saunders has been investigating some of the background to the  announcement this week of an industry-dominated group to advise on the development of a national food plan (as previously covered at Croakey, here and here).

It seems, according to her report, that some bureaucratic food fights are underway.

Margo Saunders writes:

Eyebrows have been raised in response to this week’s announcement by Senator Joe Ludwig, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, of a National Food Policy Working Group, which will provide strategic advice to government on the development of a National Food Plan.

Of the Group’s 13 members, only one, Dr Peter Williams of the University of Wollongong, can be said to represent health interests.

Knowing a hi-jack when it sees one, the Public Health Association of Australia – who have long lobbied for a national food and nutrition policy – issued a media release critical of the Working Group’s composition.

The real question, however, is what the Group is actually working on and if it is a substitute for, a precursor to, or completely separate from a national food policy which would include key outcomes relating to health, the food supply, the community, the environment and the food industry.

Part of the answer may lie in former Minister Tony Burke’s announcement in early August that, ‘This [National Food] Plan will include a consultation process with key industry players such as the National Farmers Federation, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, CSIRO and Woolworths.’

One could be forgiven for asking, however, if this ‘consultation’ group has been elevated to the status of a National Food Policy Working Group, where will that leave the nutrition and health sectors?

According to Burke, these health issues will be pigeon-holed into the second stage of development of the National Food Plan, following the completion of the Independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy (the ‘Blewett Review’) whose report is due to be presented to COAG in early 2011.

However, it is fair to ask why the Blewett Review has been asked to do its work without the benefit of a policy framework.

As Dr Lyn Roberts of the Heart Foundation pointed out in August 2010 in response to Burke’s announcement, ‘A comprehensive, national, whole of government food policy framework that maps out the Government’s vision, strategy and policy for food supply in Australia and the nutritional health of Australians would also assist the food labeling review’.

None of this, however, provides a complete explanation for what appears to be a classic ministerial and departmental ‘turf dispute’ as two departments struggle for control of Australia’s food policy or at least try to ensure a position at the top table for its key stakeholders.

As the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry runs the National Food Policy Working Group and the Hon. Catherine King MP, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, chairs the Food and Health Dialogue, perhaps we should all give a thought for the undoubtedly harried Australian Food and Grocery Council CEO Kate Carnell as she scurries between the two.

Last week also saw the launch of Food Safety Australia New Zealand’s new Consumer and Public Health Dialogue (‘dialogues’ seem to be ‘in’), described as a ‘high-level consumer and public health group’ intended, according to FSANZ Chief Executive Steve McCutcheon, ‘to improve FSANZ’s understanding of community food safety and public health issues’.

While many may welcome this as a good thing, the response from the public health community largely reflected the extent to which FSANZ has squandered any support that it might have once had.

Comments along the lines of, ‘It used to be that those views were represented on the Board,’ provide some indication of how far Dialogue Chair Professor Heather Yeatman and other public health advocates have to go towards restoring the balance.

Margo Saunders also writes on behalf of two other public health advocates who must remain anonymous for professional reasons.

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Peter Fray
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