Significant Work on Reformulation – Katherine Rich

"With the general election looming, the NZ Food & Grocery Council (FGC) is seeking a commitment from all political parties on a number of issues of vital interest to the food and beverage sector, and one of them relates to nutrition and obesity.

Last year, the Government received a report that could change the way we tackle our rising rate of obesity. It was from an investigation by the food industry into factors contributing to obesity, and more importantly what could be done to increase the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders.

The Food Industry Taskforce on Addressing Factors Contributing to Obesity, administered by FGC, was made up of manufacturers, retailers, and fast-food representatives. It made 51 recommendations on food and beverage formulation and innovation, employee health and wellness, community and education initiatives, food and beverage marketing, and labelling and Health Star Ratings (HSR).

The Government acknowledged the “significant” work by industry on reformulation to reduce saturated fats, trans-fats, free sugars and salt, the uptake of Health Stars, and development of nutrition policies – and asked for that work to continue to be prioritised.

And it has.

Most notable is work companies are doing both on their own and alongside the Heart Foundation to set targets for priority categories. So far, 47 voluntary targets have been set, with a focus on sugar and salt. Recently, nutrient reduction targets have been set for pizzas, gravies/finishing sauces, and ready meals.

There has also been a big move on another recommendation, with Out of Home Media Association Aotearoa members voluntarily deciding to not advertise occasional food and beverage products within a 300-metre sightline of the main entrances of primary and intermediate schools.

That’s great progress, but more needs to be done, particularly around understanding the diet of today’s children.

One of the taskforce’s recommendations was aimed directly at this. It called for government to undertake a children’s National Nutrition Survey, and that’s why FGC is calling on all political parties to commit to it as a matter of urgency. The previous survey was done in 2002 – 18 years ago!

Nutritionists, officials and the food industry agree much has changed in that time, and policy-makers are at worst flying blind or at best defaulting to more up-to-date Australian data, which of course doesn’t take into account any unique factors that might arise due to the diversity of the New Zealand population. When good nutrition is vital to good health, it beggars belief the Ministry of Health has allowed its data to become so outdated.

When last done, the Nutrition Survey collected information for 3275 children aged 5-14. It reported on, for example, how much fruit they were eating, what they ate at school and home, how much of it was fast food, how much exercise they were getting, and their intake of sugar, salt, fat, and essential vitamins and minerals – all crucial inputs into determining what areas policymakers and industry should be targeting.

We know that in the nearly two decades since, many of the measures collected in 2002 will have changed dramatically. For a start, think of the effect of screen time on exercise. In 2002, television was still the No 1 screen in children’s lives. Not so now. These are things we need to know more about.

I’m backed on this by two of New Zealand’s top experts on nutrition, who have also called for a fresh children’s nutrition survey. (They also want a fresh adults’ survey, which I also agree with. That hasn’t been done since 2011!)

Professor Jim Mann and Honorary Associate Professor Winsome Parnell say dietary factors and obesity have taken over as the key causes of the global burden of disease, and there’s a desperate need to see what we’re eating. As they say, we can imagine what we think New Zealanders are eating, but if we don’t have a look, then we don’t know.

FGC would also like to see political parties commit to a further awareness campaign for our HSR system, the best food guidance system in the world. But that’s enough for one article, and we don’t want to appear greedy!"

By Katherine Rich, Chief Executive, NZ Food & Grocery Council