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A senior government aide, who demanded a new healthy food rating website be taken down, is married to the head of a lobbying body that works for the junk food industry.
Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash said in Senate question time on Tuesday that both she and her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, had personally intervened to insist health department staff pull down the new “health star rating” site on the day it was launched.
Mr Furnival was previously a chairman of Australian Public Affairs, listed on the lobbyists’ register as representing the Australian Beverages Council and Mondelez Australia, which owns Kraft, Cadbury and Oreo brands, among others.
In question time, Senator Nash also said Mr Furnival was married to the company’s sole director and secretary, Tracey Cain. Australian Securities and Investments Commission records show Mr Furnival was also previously a director of the company.
Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King has demanded an explanation of the actions of Senator Nash and Mr Furnival.
“The government has a responsibility to act in the best interests of all Australians,” she said. “It is for Senator Nash to explain how her actions and those of her office demonstrate this.”
Public health and consumer groups are furious the site was taken down after two years in development, and have accused the government of bowing to the interests of the junk food industry.
The site, which set up a system for food manufacturers to label their products with easy-to-understand nutritional information, was launched about midday on Wednesday last week, only to be pulled by 8pm.
On Friday, Senator Nash did not respond to questions from Fairfax Media about whether she or Mr Furnival had intervened to have the site removed. But on Tuesday, she told Parliament Mr Furnival had approached departmental staff on her direction.
Labor senator Penny Wong asked whether Senator Nash and Mr Furnival had read and complied with ministerial standards relating to conflicts of interest.
Senator Nash called her line of questioning ”unworthy”.
“The health star rating system is not yet in place – it would have been extremely confusing for consumers had that website remained,” she said. “My chief of staff has no connection with the food industry and is simply doing his job.”
The Public Health Association of Australia and consumer group Choice have condemned the decision to take the website down.
Public Health Association head Michael Moore said the move was inappropriate. ”The disappointing thing to me was that it was a unilateral decision that over-rode a decision of the food ministers.”
He said the food industry had supported the site, until it became clear the Coalition would probably gain power at the election.
The Food and Grocery Council says it is only pushing for a cost-benefit analysis to examine the effects of the system on the industry, something supported by Senator Nash. She told Parliament the process had not yet concluded.
A spokeswoman for Senator Nash said Mr Furnival had met all the requirements of employment and of the ministerial staff code of conduct.
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