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Opinion: Do food standards matter?

The New Zealand and Australian food standards regulator (FSANZ) recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. I attended a day-long event and, there being no such thing as a free lunch, gave a presentation on what food standards and safety mean from a consumer perspective.

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I said food standards needed to do three things well: provide confidence our food is safe; help us to make healthy, nutritional choices; and assist us being informed about what we’re eating.

The question that really needed to be posed was — is our population better off for having these standards?

Unhealthy diet is a major contributor to the burden of disease in Australia and New Zealand. The primary factor is basically our fat food environment — the predominance of unhealthy food, its promotion, accessibility and affordability.

One in three New Zealanders is obese, a further 35 percent of adults are overweight. Obesity rates are specially high for Maori at 47 percent and Pacific Islanders at 66 percent. The leading diet-related health conditions in Australia and New Zealand result from poor dietary habits — not enough healthy food and an excessive intake of discretionary foods and drinks.

You don’t need to look far to see how this plays out. Powerade, with 11 teaspoons of sugar in a 750ml bottle, is the official sports drink of the Olympics. It’s easy to find Olympic rower Mahe Drysdale quenching his thirst with it on the Powerade website. The Rugby Union recently joined the opposition, Gatorade (15 teaspoons of sugar in a one-litre bottle). By the time you read this, the Super Rugby season will nigh be over but fans would have been in no doubt the event was sponsored by KFC, which markets KFC and rugby as “the perfect match”.

Last year the Ministry of Health released its Childhood Obesity Plan. It acknowledged restricting marketing and sponsorship of low-nutrient, high-energy foods and beverages played a role in preventing obesity. But the food industry is self-regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, a body funded by the industry. The authority has voluntary codes and guidelines but there are none relating to sponsorship. It is reviewing its two codes for advertising to children.

This is a chance for the industry to show it is responsible. But I wonder. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has taken Heinz Wattie’s to court over fruit and vege Shredz marketed for one- to three-year-olds. The company says Shredz inspire a love of nutritious food that lasts a lifetime. The ACCC says the products are more likely to be encouraging a love of sugar — Shredz are more than 60 percent sugar. An apple is 10 percent sugar.

So what of food standards? The 20-year treaty has worked well to ensure our food supply is safe, but we are a long way from making sure there is a level playing field when it comes to knowing what’s in our food and the claims marketers can make.

About the author:

Sue Chetwin has been our Chief Executive since April 2007 after more than 25 years in print journalism. She was formerly the Editor of Sunday News, Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday.

Sue oversees all of Consumer’s operations and is also the public face of the organisation. Sue is a director of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme and a member of the Electricity Authority Retail Advisory group.

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