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Whether it’s decriminalising cannabis, legalising marriage equality, or removing abortion from criminal law, the ACT is often seen taken the lead on national issues frustrated by federal filibustering.

Now, the territory appears to have responded to the federal government’s long-debated and widely-criticised Health Star Rating system for packaged food, launched in 2014.

A five-year review of the system published last year found that products high in sugar, salt and fat were scoring highly due to loopholes in the rating criteria. But new labels have been popping up in independent supermarkets across the ACT, pointing out “healthier choices” among aisles of products.

This is the result of a collaboration between ACT Health, Nutrition Australia, and the Canberra Business Chamber that first started in 2018.

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Gary Sacks, associate professor at Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre, told Crikey that “part of the problem with the original development of the health star rating is that the food industry were at the table helping develop the system and that’s why you have ended up with a system where certain products come up looking better than they are.”

“There has also been huge pushback from the food industry in changing the system as well, which explains some of the delay in reform.”

“Healthier Choices” takes a product’s health star rating into account but ACT Health and Nutrition have developed additional criteria and have “stayed true to our hearts about what we believe is healthy,” Nutrition Australia Program Manager and Dietition Leanne Elliston told Crikey.

As such, cheese — the high-fat enemy of the Health Star Rating system — gets a tick in Canberra for being a good source of protein and dairy, while four-star-rated yoghurt-topped muesli bars are out for their high sugar content.

“Companies also have to opt-in for the Health Star Rating … [whereas] our role is to go into the supermarket and assess every item on the shelf and identify whether it gets a blue ticket or not,” Elliston said.

Sacks told Crikey that while “the ACT government should be applauded for being on the front of this”, the ideal solution would be for the state and territories to collectively improve the Health Star Rating system.

“The ACT government is probably frustrated at the process; it’s been so difficult to change the Health Star Rating and pick up the anomalies of the system,” Sacks said.