Obesity needs tackling, but only through considered measures

By Katherine Rich, chief executive of the NZ Food & Grocery Council

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: New zealand, Obesity

Obesity needs tackling, but only through considered measures
The level of obesity among New Zealanders, and children in particular, is a major concern, with 28% of adults and one in 10 children aged between two and 14 classed as obese. What’s more, the figures are even higher when broken down by ethnicity. 

So naturally the issue of what can be done to reduce such disturbing statistics frequently becomes a topic for discussion locally among regulators, non-government organisations and the wider food industry. It’s a discussion being had not just in New Zealand but around the world.

As a representative body for food and beverage manufacturers, the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council sees its role as leading, facilitating and championing food industry initiatives so our members can play a key role in encouraging solutions to the obesity issue.

Our member companies have stepped up over the past few decades to embark on major investment in reformulation, portion control and development of healthier choices within almost all categories. 

A prime example of this was the announcement this week by Coca-Cola NZ to launch a suite of measures designed to contribute to the reduction of obesity harm. Their initiatives included increasing the availability of smaller portion sizes, offering more low-cal options, more nutritional information, and funding physical activity programmes locally.

Projects such as these mean there are now more healthier options available in New Zealand supermarkets than there have been at any time in our history, but critics of the food and beverage industry often overlook the most important area where we have no control – what shoppers decide to put in their trolleys and feed to their families. 

Obesity is a complex problem, and all too often some of the solutions suggested sound simple, but are completely unworkable. In the past 12 months in New Zealand there have been calls for fat taxes, sugar taxes, and even a salt tax, with those separately making the suggestions not realising that the only outcome will be higher grocery prices, with the tax hitting poorer families hardest.

NZFGC does try to discuss each suggestion thoughtfully and politely, but sometimes regulatory calls are so off-beam that the only reasonable response is to reject it outright.

That was our position recently when a local academic, Professor Janet Hoek, called on the New Zealand Government to consider policies to require that all takeaways (fast food) be sold in plain packaging - ie, no logos, no pictures and no coloured cardboard.  A Big Mac would, therefore, be dispatched in a plain cardboard box – no doubt with Arial 14pt describing the product – while Happy Meals would become decidedly unHappy in a plain paper bag, and the entertaining toy duely ditched.

The idea is a ludicrous one that was appropriately pilloried in the media, but it shows how out of touch some academics are with the process of government and, more tellingly, public opinion.

Not only is there absolutely no evidence that plain packaging of takeaway food is a successful measure for combatting obesity, it’s actually very clear that the opposite is true, and that as a method of discouraging healthier food choices, plain packaging makes no difference at all.

The fatal flaw in the argument for plain packaging food is this: what is probably the No 1 takeaway choice for New Zealanders, fish and chips, remains classically wrapped in plain paper and has done for generations.  What’s more, most fish and chip shops and other traditional takeaway outlets also dispatch their hamburgers and other products also in plain paper bags. All of which only proves the point that once a consumer has decided that’s what they want for dinner then the packaging is almost inconsequential.

Bans, taxes, and wider restrictions will not be successful in encouraging healthier choices. Only education and encouraging lifestyle changes will correct the current imbalance between the amount some New Zealanders eat and the energy they burn off. Speaking to my colleagues around the world in other markets reflect a similar experience.

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