Health advocates are drawing battle lines against "Big Food", claiming drastic intervention is needed to stave off a diabetes crisis in New Zealand.
As adult obesity nears a third of the population, individual responsibility for diet and exercise is clearly not enough, said Gabrielle Jenkin, an Otago University of Wellington health academic who is co-ordinating a seminar today in Wellington.
Government policymakers were reluctant to legislate against "Big Food" - industry powers such as Fonterra, Coca-Cola, Heinz Wattie's, fast food chains and Foodstuffs and Progressive supermarkets, she said. Many so-called nutrition research bodies were sponsored by Big Food, she said. Dietitians New Zealand, for instance, stated on its website that it is backed by Unilever and Nestle.
Dr Jenkin said "tainted" research was presented at select committees as unbiased fact. "They're corrupting science."
She claimed Big Food was more powerful than Big Tobacco, and likely to be more aggressive if policy turned against it.
The industry put the onus on individuals to fight obesity, so governments tended to promote diet and exercise rather than legislating against unhealthy food, she said.
"We've got a really big problem and we can't stop it. It's not just ‘shock horror, people are a bit fatter'. There are real health consequences."
Television shows such as The Biggest Loser, Downsize Me and Embarrassing Fat Bodies reinforced the personal responsibility message. "The message is ‘Get your big arse off the sofa', rather than ‘Stop the KFC opening across the road'."
However,some governments had stood up to Big Food. In Britain, manufacturers have been forced to reduce fat, sugar and salt, and New York's governor attempted to restrict portion sizes and introduce nutritional information in restaurants.
In New Zealand, politicians remained cowed by Big Food, she said. In deprived towns and suburbs, fast food outlets were so numerous as to be unavoidable.
"New Zealand is appalling. You're sniffing KFC wherever you go."
Public health dietician Julia Rout endorsed Dr Jenkin's policy recommendations.
"Most people know what they should be eating for good health, but then they go into an environment where junk food is so easily available, it's really hard."
Dietitians New Zealand chief executive Petrina Turner-Benny would not say whether she supported a policy approach to obesity.
She acknowledged that representing dietitians working both independently and for large companies could be "quite fraught". "We're managing conflict between the two groups."
However, dialogue needed to be maintained. "If we close the door, then we run the risk of not being able to influence reformulation of any products."
Industry partners did not pay Dietitians NZ's staff salaries, she said. Nestle paid $5000 a year towards the body's annual awards.
Retailers Association of New Zealand spokesman Barry Hellberg said that, as with alcohol and cigarettes, people needed to moderate their consumption. "I don't think legislation is the answer."
Gabrielle Jenkin's advice to New Zealand's policymakers:
Ban advertising and marketing of unhealthy food.
Improve food labelling, ideally with a "traffic light" system.
Change planning policy so unhealthy food outlets are unable to set up near schools.
Outlet numbers should be restricted by population size.
Restrict unhealthy food in public institutions such as schools.
Install more public water fountains.
Make unhealthy food unaffordable, either by taxation or by subsidising healthy food.
Force "Big Food" to reduce salt, fat and sugar in products.
Restrict portion sizes, as New York tried with soft drink in 2013.
- The Dominion Post
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