Millions of Australians spread it on their toast every morning, and Britain's new tennis darling, Laura Robson, won local hearts last week when she declared herself a fan. But if the government has its way, Vegemite could be banished from supermarket shelves, because of its high salt content.
A preventative health task force, set up by Canberra to examine ways of tackling Australia's obesity problem, has canvassed the idea of taxing foods high in fat, sugar and salt. Although its final report is not due until June, the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) is already warning that Vegemite – considered an Australian "icon", even though it is American-owned – is under threat.
While the appeal of the pungent, dark brown paste is difficult to fathom for outsiders, Australians are outraged by the prospect of it being outlawed by the food police. Even a pledge by the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that "there is no way in the world that Vegemite would be banned" has failed to allay concerns.
The Opposition health spokesman, Peter Dutton, was quick to point out that Ms Gillard had not explicitly ruled out a new tax on Vegemite, which consists mainly of yeast extract, along with 8 per cent salt. Mr Dunn called on the "nanny-state government" to make its intentions clear, and said Australian families "don't need to be served up a menu... about what they need to eat and drink".
Vegemite – invented in 1922 by a food technologist, Cyril Percy Callister, using waste yeast from a Melbourne brewery – is regarded as an Australian national food, although it has long been owned by the US giant Kraft. Fifteen-year-old Robson, who lost to Russia's Ksenia Pervak in the junior final of the Australian Open yesterday, was hailed as "an Aussie" by the locals when she said she preferred it to Marmite. The junior Wimbledon champion was born in Australia but moved to Britain as a toddler.
Despite its sun-tanned, sporty image, Australia has an obesity problem on a par with America's. Overweight children are of particular concern. As well as higher taxes, the task force – appointed by Kevin Rudd's Labor government to recommend ways to address obesity and other preventable health problems – has proposed limiting the fat, sugar and salt content of food and drinks, outlawing the advertising of unhealthy foods and banning them from school vending machines.
The AFGC claims that blue cheese, jams and preserves, as well as Vegemite, could disappear from grocery baskets if the recommendations are adopted. It has told the task force that the food industry will "not support, nor be party to" new regulations based on "conjecture and supposition" rather than scientific evidence.
The Australian online news website Crikey suggested the Vegemite controversy had been cooked up by the industry body as a pre-emptive strike. It also noted the "priceless celebrity endorsement" of the spread by Ms Gillard, who declared: "I am a very happy Vegemite eater... Vegemite is part of being Australian, part of our history, part of our future, and I'll be continuing to wake up in the morning and have it on my toast."Reuse content