A LONG-STANDING proposal to require all health claims on packaged food to be substantiated before they go on the market may have been derailed by the billion-dollar grocery industry, which is proposing that it be allowed to sell first, prove later.
In a last-minute push, government and industry officials have floated the option of industry self-regulation of general health claims, a proposal consumer and health sources said was like the ''fox guarding the henhouse''.
''Industry lobby groups are fiercely resisting the proposal to subject their plans to slap health claims on chocolate and sugar to scrutiny by food regulators,'' said Matt Levey, the head of campaigns with the consumer advocacy group Choice.
''But we know there are ministers willing to protect consumers from overzealous health marketing and we are hopeful of a sensible outcome after decades of consultation on this issue.''
Until last week there appeared to be agreement that general health claims like those on Golden Circle's new probiotic juice, which says it supports ''your natural immune defences'', would have to be checked by Food Standards Australia New Zealand before the foods could be sold.
A draft standard released in February recommended that all health claims on food packaging would have to be pre-approved.
This standard had been under consideration for more than 10 years.
Most stakeholders had believed that this recommendation would be the one put to health ministers later this month.
But the new standard was rejected by the Australian Food and Grocery Council as ''extremely inadequate and unworkable,'' which has asked for more consultations.
At a meeting last Thursday, the industry proposed that manufacturers be allowed to market any product based on their own research.
If challenged, manufacturers would provide a dossier of research for authorities to verify, in much the same way as they do now, said Geoffrey Annison, the acting chief executive of the council.
The Food and Grocery Council's submission on food standards says many claims would be ''rendered illegal'' under the new regime, citing Burgen's soy and linseed bread which is marketed as ''for women's wellbeing'' and a protein-flavoured milk which is promoted as ''protein for growing muscles''.
If pre-approval was required, the council said packaging on up to 30,000 items on supermarket shelves would need changing, costing ''hundreds of millions of dollars'', given that changing the cost of one label can cost as much as $15,300.
A third proposal, which may succeed as a compromise, would allow manufacturers to go to market with a claim, which independent experts in the food standards authority would then have six months to verify.
Michael Moore, chief executive of the Public Health Association of Australia, who attended Thursday's meeting, says health and consumer groups are now trying to find the ''least worst solution that still protects health''.
He said consumer and health groups had agreed to the new standard in good faith.
"Health claims are really about sales. Whatever the compromise suggested by public servants, we urge ministers to make health the number one priority.''
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