Health a greater concern than reef: sugar survey

Sugar Milling Council survey explores perceptions of health, reef


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One of the slides shown by the Australian Sugar Milling Council, demonstrating public opinion on two important issues involving the sugar industry.

One of the slides shown by the Australian Sugar Milling Council, demonstrating public opinion on two important issues involving the sugar industry.

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The potential impact of sugar on people's health has been found to be a much greater concern to the Australian public than the impact that growing it can have on the Great Barrier Reef.

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The potential impact of sugar on people's health has been found to be a much greater concern to the Australian public than the impact that growing it can have on the Great Barrier Reef.

This was one of the many thought-provoking messages delivered by the Australian Sugar Milling Council's communications director Julie Iommi at the Australian Society of Sugar Cane Technologists conference in Toowoomba last week.

Ms Iommi, who has previously worked with the dairy industry and delivered animal welfare and mad cow disease messages across Europe, was outlining the results of a 2018 behaviour and attitudes survey that built on a consumer survey conducted in August 2016.

"The question that was posed (in 2016) was, rank these different issues," she said.

"The first one was, I am concerned about the health impact of sugar, the effect of sugar on my health.

"That ... was hugely dominant, and I think most people in this room, expected the reef and the effect of the sugar industry on the environment to be far more prevalent in the minds of the public."

The most remarkable thing, according to Ms Iommi, was that so many people were in the neutral category on both issues, meaning they were confused or yet to make up their mind on an issue.

"I think that probably represents the level of debate. If you go onto Facebook or do some research, you get a raft of information," she said. "I think people are, broadly speaking, quite bewildered."

This made them vulnerable to tipping into the negative category if pressure against the sugar industry continued.

This was the other main point Ms Iommi made, that there was always a temptation to 'shoot the messenger' when a group of activists began shouting at your industry.

"The natural response is to shout back with all the good reasons why you do what you do. You become very defensive," she said.

"The problem is that all the public sees, who really are just getting on with their lives, they're not that interested in real details of what the sugar industry does on a daily basis.

"So when a shouting match starts, the general public are looking at body language, a whole range of things, they're not really listening.

"All they see is two groups of people shouting at each other."

She said a more mature position of talking to the public needed to be taken rather than falling in the trap of trying to address every point activists made.

Related: Millers positively back sugar code reform

Using the Broadening our Horizons conference theme, Ms Iommi told the 400 conference attendees that while they were experts in their field, they needed to step away and ask how their industry looked from the outside.

"How do we communicate what we do as an industry in a way that really resonates and aligns with public expectations," she asked, saying it always paid to check whether current expectations about an issue matched those of 20 years ago.

Not addressing concerns early, both in the way cane farmers communicated their message but also in terms of how they ran their businesses, was the key reason single issue concerns gained momentum.

The research found that a high percentage of people felt they understood sugar and its role in a healthy diet, but were worried about other people.

"When we talked to them about policy measures, the general feedback was that, we understand the label on a product, we understand that sugar is not the problem here, we understand that you just need to moderate or manage the amount of sugar you consume relative to the amount of activity," Ms Iommi said. "However we don't feel that everybody in the community understands that, therefore something should be done about it."

There was 71 per cent support for a health star rating on food products, 51pc support for advertising restrictions before 9pm, and 48pc support for a sugar tax, as ways to address sugar consumption.

"Perhaps because a sugar tax affects everybody whereas there was this sentiment that we should be targeting the response, not affecting the whole population," Ms Iommi said.

People were looking to governments for a response more than from industry.

The research also teased out that people under 35 thought of food and drink manufacturers when asked who they thought the sugar industry consisted of.

"They didn't associate sugar and health with growers and millers," Ms Iommi said. "However, with all the focus of late on the reef, it was interesting when we asked people, who do you think is responsible for protection of the environment, yes, government, but growers and millers were very much further up in terms of responsibility."

She said the results of the survey would be used in a strategic way to learn from other industries where a head-to-head approach hasn't worked and the confidence of the consumer had been eroded.

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