ORANGE growers are hopeful a meeting today of Australian and New Zealand agriculture ministers will abandon plans to remove the five-star health rating from sugar-free juice.

A Health Standard Rating review is wanting to reduce fresh fruit and vegetable juice with no added sugar to as low as 2½ Stars, the same as diet soft drink.

Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock has told the Mildura Weekly the assessment tool used for the review was “clumsy”.

“The idea is to get people to drink more water,”he said. “While the case for more water is good it overlooks the health benefits of other drinks like orange juice with its vitamins and other natural products.

“Any decision that enables fresh orange juice to be rated the equivalent of diet cola is not only a misrepresentation of the health benefits of fresh 100% juice with no added sugar, but will have a detrimental effect on fresh juice consumption and the future of the Australian juice industry,” Mr Hancock said.

Mr Hancock’s optimism that Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation meeting will reject the recommendation comes after Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud this week backed the calls from Mr Hancock and Citrus Australia.

Mr Littleproud told the Mildura-based grower association that retaining the current 5-Star rating recognised the nutritional benefits of fruit juice within the non-dairy beverages category.

He also said  fruit juice should not have a lower rating than diet carbonated beverages. Mr Littleproud said the 5-Star rating would better align with the Australian Dietary Guidelines for consumption of non-dairy beverages and adresses industry concerns, retains jobs in the juice producing sector and retains common sense in the HSR system.

“His letter (this week) is the best indication yet that we have been heard and our concerns taken on board,” said Mr Hancock. 

“The minister has listened … no added-sugar juice is something worth protecting.’’

Mr Hancock said the loss of a 5-Star rating  would only confuse consumers.

Mr Littleproud told Citrus Australia that while the HSR system had been designed to assist consumers, the impact on industry was not quantified through the review process and the impact on fruit growers and farmers was not taken into account.

The fruit juice industry has demonstrated a strong commitment to the HSR system, he said.

Australian juice processors have stated that the proposed changes to the HSR for fresh juice would have an immediate and detrimental effect on sales.

Fruit juice currently contributes $736m to the Australian economy and citrus growers and juice factories contribute significantly to rural economies throughout Australia.

“Retaining the 5-Star rating ensures consistency with the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADG), which places fresh juice in the ‘eat more of’ category,” Mr Hancock said.

An announcement from today’s meeting is expected next month.