The Food & Grocery Council shares concerns by Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare around diabetes and obesity, says Katherine Rich, but it doesn’t believe forcing up the price of unhealthy food and drink is the answer.

Mrs Rich was asked by the NZ Herald to respond by a call by the Minister to consider measures such as forcing up the price of unhealthy food and drink to help address diabetes rates and the wider obesity problem. The Herald wanted to know what industry is doing in this area.

She said many New Zealanders would benefit from healthier diets, and energy balance (eating less and moving more) is key to preventing obesity – something the Food & Grocery Council has been saying for many years.

“But FGC doesn’t believe that forcing up the price of unhealthy food and drink, presumably by way of a tax, will make an overall difference to people’s choices. Taxes to artificially raise the price of energy-dense foods have not worked anywhere in the world they have been tried.

“For example, sales data shows that in Mexico, where a 20% tax was introduced in 2014, consumption of sugary drinks initially dropped by a small amount, but within a year it had climbed back to pre-tax levels, meaning there was little or no benefit at all to the public and certainly no effect on the rate of obesity. All that happened was the Government gained a huge amount of money in tax and poorer citizens paid the most.

“Economists will confirm that food taxes tend to be regressive, which means higher food prices will place a bigger burden on poorer families. Extra taxes on treats such as chocolate or other high-calorie foods such as ice-cream or pizza will make New Zealanders artificially poorer as they try to feed their families, but is the wrong sort of policy to try and nudge people towards a healthier diet.

“FGC and its member companies are committed to working with the Government and the community to prevent obesity and encourage New Zealanders to have healthier lives. Work includes product reformulation to reduce salt, sugar and fat where possible, signing up to the Healthy Kids Pledge, our Healthier New Zealanders Project, Health Star Rating system development, the work of the Food Industry Taskforce, school and community initiatives, and our Healthy Balance website

“We believe reformulation and education are key to reducing obesity. Our members are involved in community and school programmes that promote moderation, healthy food choices and programmes such as cooking at home, which are proven to be effective. Many also sponsor programmes that emphasise the need to be active alongside a healthy diet.

“Companies are reformulating products, removing sugar, fat and salt, to offer more choice to consumers. As at 30 June, more than 4800 products in supermarkets had Health Stars on their labels, many of them the result of reformulation. Most companies have registered nutritionists on their staff or advising on product ingredients and reformulation. Our main beverage companies are now producing more low- and no-sugar options on supermarket shelves than ever before, with sales now overtaking those of full-sugar drinks.

The Herald’s story is here