Speech - 2nd International Conference on the Science of Nutrition in Medicine and Healthcare, Melbourne 5 May 2012
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5 May 2012
Thank you for inviting me to address your second international conference.
It’s heartening to see so many Australian, New Zealand and international experts here to exchange views and research data on an area that all countries are grappling with that is crucial to the future wellbeing of all our citizens.
About this time last year I attended the World Health Organization Congress on non-communicable diseases in Moscow. It is clear that the role of nutrition, and the way we look at disease prevention and health promotion is being recognised as a priority for governments worldwide.
The Australian Government is strongly committed to reducing chronic disease and to supporting the health and wellbeing of all Australians.
I applaud the aims of this conference, especially the desire to increase awareness and understanding among the scientific, medical and wider healthcare groups of nutritional and environmental influences on illness and disease.
I want to specifically focus on the area of nutrition and talk a little bit about the work I am involved with in Government in this area.
Government activities and initiatives
The Government recognises the key role that nutrition plays in preventive health and many of our initiatives are based on improving people’s diets, through both changing behaviours as well as the nutritional profile of the food supply.
As many of you may know, a key initiative of the Government is the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health which is providing more than $872 million over six years to promote healthy lifestyle programs in workplaces, communities and children’s settings.
The Partnership also funds social marketing campaigns to raise awareness of chronic disease and how healthy lifestyles can help reduce the risk of these diseases. Which is why we also have as a focus the development and support of partnerships between governments and industry to encourage changes in policies and practices to support healthy living
The mechanism for this engagement between Government, industry and public health groups is the Food and Health Dialogue.
We want people to consume less saturated fat, added sugar and sodium and to lower the energy content of many common foods.
We want to see an increase in the fibre, wholegrain, fruit and vegetables consumed.
And the Dialogue partners are helping us to do that by committing to reformulate their foods.
Processed and pre-prepared foods now form a large part of the Australian diet.
That translates into a significant influence from manufacturers, retailers and the food service sector over what we eat.
By any measure, the Dialogue has already chalked up some significant health achievements and I would like to outline some of them.
For example, manufacturers have agreed to reduce sodium across a range of bread products, breakfast cereals, simmer sauces, processed meat products, soups and savoury pies.
We will soon start consulting with more industries such as processed poultry, cheese, potato corn and extruded snacks, savoury crackers, noodles and condiments.
Because of the growing proportion of Australians who eat away from home, we are also engaging with the quick service restaurant sector on reformulation, portion sizing and consumer messaging activities.
To inform the work of the Dialogue, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) undertook dietary intake assessments to estimate the potential impact of the reformulation target for bread on population nutrient intakes.
At mean population intakes, it was determined that reformulation of bread has resulted in a 2-3% reduction in estimated sodium intakes which is equivalent to removing approximately 1000 tonnes of salt from the Australian food supply every year.
We have a long way to go but I am encouraged by the work of the Dialogue so far.
Australian Dietary Guidelines
Another significant action the Government is taking is to revise the Australian Dietary Guidelines which will underpin the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
We are doing this through the National Health and Medical Research Council and the draft guidelines have been released.
The Dietary Guidelines underpin the initiatives I have outlined by providing evidence-based nutrition advice designed to promote optimal health and reduce diet-related disease.
We want the revised guidelines to reflect the latest available scientific evidence to guide nutrition recommendations for the Australian population.
We believe the guidelines should be based on evidence that has undergone extensive and rigorous review by some of Australia’s leading health experts.
This includes the analysis of 55,000 peer-reviewed scientific literature papers.
Can I thank the many people here today who have contributed to that body of evidence.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand was initially established following a spate of serious food safety incidents not only in Australia but in a number of other developed countries too.
While the FSANZ Act clearly states that its responsibilities are in public health and safety, it has traditionally focussed its role on food safety.
An important body in our efforts is the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation which brings together Australian and New Zealand ministers responsible for regulating food and beverages.
At its last meeting the Forum considered the 61 recommendations of the Food Labelling Review Report — entitled Labelling Logic.
An important agreement reached at our last meeting is the development of a comprehensive National Nutrition Policy.
This is a policy that will be developed within the framework of the government’s preventive health agenda. Guidelines will also be developed which will outline the expectations of Food Standards Australia New Zealand in supporting public health objectives.
We agreed to a food labelling decision-making framework based on a three-tiered hierarchy—food safety, preventive health and consumer values issues.
We also agreed to the need for an easily understood, interpretive front-of-pack labelling system for packaged foods.
The Food Regulation Standing Committee is leading a process of key industry, public health and consumer stakeholders to develop a system within a year.
Ministers have asked officials to report on the development of a voluntary front-of-pack labelling scheme in June.
The Forum is keen to avoid the spread of different systems and the potential for conflicting or inconsistent nutrition messages leading to consumer confusion.
Another important area for consideration over the next couple of months is the standard on nutrition and health claims. It is a highly contested space and I don’t underestimate the challenge of reaching agreement.
As you can see there is a lot happening in this area and I am encouraged and supported by the work happening here over the weekend.
I wish you well in your deliberations.
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