Industry plays active role in helping improve Kiwis' health

The food industry plays a vital and active role in helping to improve the health and nutrition of New Zealanders through helping shape legislation, in reformulating food, enhancing education, and by delivering community programmes aimed at better health, FGC Chief Executive Katherine Rich told a Nutrition Foundation symposium on health and food on October 30.

Here is her speech:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation’s symposium.

I’d like to pay tribute to the work of the Foundation because it plays such an important role. I’ve always appreciated the constructive and evidence-based approach that the Foundation, as a professional, non-profit organisation, takes.

The New Zealand Food & Grocery Council absolutely supports the foundation’s aim that all New Zealanders should have access to accurate information to enable them to make better informed choices about food and the effect it has on their health.

The work of the Foundation plays a key role in providing a balanced viewpoint on important issues around food, nutrition and health, which is important when there can be so much misinformation.

This is particularly so in this age of social media when such misinformation can be around the world in seconds and almost impossible to be adequately addressed or corrected.

I particularly like the Foundation’s theme for the symposium today “Food not nutrients – getting back to talking about food.”

So often in food debates the focus is on nutrients rather than the foods that New Zealanders actually consume. People eat foods – they don’t automatically break down in their heads the myriad of nutrients they should be consuming or want to consume.  

So scaremongering about this nutrient or that nutrient doesn’t necessarily help them make better choices about what they eat.

While the debate might be about sugar or fat or salt – often it leaves consumers confused and unsure about what to do.

Many of the messages don’t resonate with consumers because they are so extreme.

Take comments such as “sugar is toxic” or “salt is white death”.  Sure, they make for eye-grabbing headlines, but the messages are completely confusing to consumers and give them no idea about what they should do. Extremists would say give up sugars completely, but that’s not possible or desirable from the perspective of the vast majority of New Zealanders.

So what are some of the solutions? How can we ensure we give consumers messages they can understand, and that give them a clearer direction on how to eat more healthily?

I know from the FGC membership that food companies are constantly working on these issues. Many of them have registered dieticians or nutritionists fulltime on their staff to advise on the nutritional profile of foods, while others have them on contract or engage them as advisers.

These companies work hard to play their part in minimising obesity and harm from excess consumption.  

The leaders of our industry see the same statistics and reports that everyone else does. They see the problems in their own communities and confront the same issues every day with their own friends and families.   

So it’s disappointing when some people choose to create the impression that the food and grocery sector is not concerned about the nation’s health and is solely to blame for burgeoning waistlines. The fact of the matter is that it’s not that simple.

It’s equally frustrating when critics paint all industry comments as being just about personal choice. I have never heard any of my colleagues argue that obesity is just about personal choice – far from it.

Personally, I have always argued that tackling the complex issue of obesity requires a combined effort by government, the community, the food industry, families and individuals. All of these groups need to do their bit to promote good health and prevent or reduce obesity.

But there's no escaping the fact that ultimately only one of these key participants holds the spoon and that’s why education about good nutrition is so important.

Today I’d like to speak about what the industry has done and is doing to play its part.

s1But first, a bit about the Food & Grocery Council for those who might not be aware of our organisation.

FGC is an industry association for manufacturers and suppliers behind New Zealand’s food, beverage, and grocery brands. Contrary to some public reports we do not represent the fast-food industry, nor the supermarkets. Some mischief makers would also have people believe we represent “junk food”. We have members that make all sorts of products, but in our public statements we stand for moderation in all things, and this is particularly true for treat foods.

FGC sees its role as advocating on behalf of our members in all relevant discussions that are part of a democratic society which preserves free speech. And we certainly see that FGC and its members play an important role in the health and nutrition of New Zealanders in making better diet and lifestyle choices.

All our members, through the provision of their products, play an important role whether it be by providing sustenance or variety and enjoyment.

s2Our organisation covers over 30,000 food and non-food grocery items.  Each product has its own story – its own potential issues and interests.

In all the comments that FGC makes about products we aim for an evidential base and a good dose of common sense. We are constantly involved in and contribute to many discussions and consultations.

You will find on our website the long list of consultations we have participated in.  They range from product labelling, and the revision of the Food Code, to all manner of ingredient and food safety issues, and include government departments and agencies, including Food Standards Australia NZ. We generally submit in various public arenas on topics of interest to our members.  

There’s no surprise to our work. We are out and about talking to everyone about groceries. In the past year we’ve spoken to all political parties in Parliament, large and small.

We will participate and exercise our rights to freedom of speech.

There are some who think industry has no place at the table or indeed no right to offer a view – that freedom of speech is fine as long as we share the same view. Sorry, but that’s not the way freedom of expression works.

In practice, if industry wasn’t at the table or able to offer a view then I suspect that quite often nothing would happen, because most of the time it’s industry that has the necessary expertise to get the job done.

s3Product labelling for healthier choices is a prime example of this – where the industry worked alongside public health and the Australian and New Zealand governments to develop the recently introduced Health Star Rating scheme.

Together, around a table, we agreed there was an opportunity to offer additional helpful information to consumers.

I’m the first to acknowledge there is no such thing as the perfect scheme, but the Health Star Rating scheme has been widely praised by consumers, politicians and others. It’s a fantastic example of what can be achieved when all the major participants in the nation’s health work together.  

In the New Zealand group, people with a food company background sat beside public health people and nutritionists, and the process worked extremely well.

I make this point specifically because there seems to be a growing conspiracy theory that corporate New Zealand somehow conspires against public health scientists and wilfully ignores everything they say.

That is complete tosh. Industry has a long history of working with academics, seeking their advice and citing their work with the aim that food decisions are evidence-based.

The food industry has a deep respect for the academic world, but I must admit it does get frustrated at times by the drift into the area of academic activism rather than focusing on good science.

The truth is that the food industry is as concerned about diseases such as diabetes and obesity as anyone, which is why we have worked for many years on the product labelling project and other company-based initiatives which I’ll list in a moment.

At the end of it we were particularly pleased that the Health Star Rating is able to be used in conjunction with the Heart Tick, because many of our members have supported that scheme for many years. 

Had industry not come to the table on this project I’m not confident the Health Star Rating would have got off the ground at all.

Why do I say this? Sitting with the New Zealand advisory group I saw first-hand the technical expertise that was needed to create the scheme. Most of the complex maths around the algorithm and dealing with anomalies was done because industry and regulators worked together. Industry was able to contribute feedback about the shape and design of the device.

Had government departments not heeded feedback from companies and changed the format, the design would have been so big and chunky that it simply would not have fitted on to thousands of products. One of our members calculated that his company had 100s of SKUs where this was the case.

Currently, FGC has been helping MPI with the promotion of education meetings for companies about the scheme, and we are encouraging our members to take it up.  So far a good number have publicly committed to putting the star labels on their products, which is fantastic.

Initially it was hoped there would be examples on the shelves by Christmas, but already Sanitarium has the new device on some of its products, and that’s a great achievement.

I’m confident there will be thousands of products re-labelled over the next few years, giving consumers another tool to help them choose their food.

s4FGC has other roles.  We also play an important part in providing balance to the wide range of comments made about food. Headlines like these and the earlier ones I mentioned help no one and sometimes serve only to frighten people.

The Just Water campaign passing off as a campaign for Coca-Cola is one such example. As you can see here, the campaign implores people to “Enjoy Diabetes”. This was an insensitive campaign that was not thought through. I was sent a copy of an email from a concerned community worker who was upset at one unintended result of this campaign.  

The email was distressing, and read:

“I was delivering Health and Wellbeing within the Pacific and Maori communities and clarifying their knowledge of what this actually means.  I was in the open air plaza with stands and activities all around us.  I was talking to a beautiful young Tongan lady whose family is riddled with diabetes and her mother just had four toes amputated and look what drives past us and parks in the middle of the plaza….Look at the pics ….This Tongan girl welled up with tears and said…these are not joyful days for us…Why would they say that….Just Water has used a play on the Coca-Cola ads and used it to its absolute maximum effect.  My people don’t get this subtlety…they take messages like this literally”. 

What was clearly designed by one corporate to provoke another ended up hurting innocent people. 

s5In terms of providing balance, I see industry’s role as correcting misinformation.

Consumers are welcome to hold any opinions they like, but FGC’s aim is to make sure the information on which they base their opinions is as correct as it can be. This isn’t easy in the modern age of Twitter and the reliance on Google. Often this is a challenge.

Take this article. It looks like one of the thousands that get written about food every day around the world.

Would you believe that there are more than 70 errors of fact in it.  FGC will always seek corrections – not on matters of opinion but on black and white matters of fact. On this one we achieved the necessary corrections, although it did take some time.

We will also raise issues where products do not comply with the Food Code, thus making them illegal for sale in New Zealand.  We do this mainly for food safety reasons.

It’s a mundane task and a lot of work, but we think it’s important to make sure that goods that are on New Zealand shelves comply with our food safety laws, and that in instances of non-compliance that the Ministry of Primary Industries  is alerted.

The Twinkies you see here is a recent example. By our calculation the amount of preservatives in these ones are well outside what’s allowable in New Zealand food. Reputable retailers will not sell them but that hasn’t stopped auction sites and other opportunists.

Many concerns we raise with MPI relate to non-compliant confectionery. It’s a daily battle.

s7

It’s more rewarding to be involved in a wide range of community activities and it’s this area that I will spend the rest of my time speaking about today. It’s a big part of FGC’s work.

In the past few years, FGC has worked with many groups from all over the political spectrum and we will continue to do so in the best interests of all New Zealanders.

We have work groups consisting of company representatives, quite often CEOs, who work on nutrition and education issues, programmes in schools, charity projects, and alongside other organisations on all sorts of health initiatives.

The pictures on screen relate to FGC’s involvement in a magnificent initiative of the Mana Party in South Auckland this year which fed breakfast to nearly 2000 school children. Our members provided all the breakfast foods and a packed lunch for all the attendees.

s8FGC is a strong supporter of the Heart Foundation’s fuelled4life programme to assist schools to carefully select foods on offer. We were supporters when it was previously known as the Food & Beverage Classification System, and we lobbied strongly to get the system resurrected and placed under the Heart Foundation’s leadership. 

Our members are heavily involved and keen for this scheme to get more resources. The Heart Foundation does a spectacular job on this with incredibly limited funding. We’d also like more schools to use the scheme.

While I’m on the topic of the Heart Foundation, once again we pay tribute to its leadership on salt reformulation. Time and time again it proves that working with industry on the front line gets results.

s9

I’m now going to highlight some of our members’ initiatives.  There are many other members doing great work and some of them are here today. I’m sorry but with limited time I could not mention every company.

Nestle, partnering with other organisations, is involved in many community activities.  The ‘Be Heathly, Be Active’ programme for intermediate school children is a great programme. So is their Cook for Life programme, where young people in South Auckland are shown how to cook healthy, tasty and affordable meals.

s10Sanitarium is involved in many programmes, including a free nutrition advisory service, and their nationwide TRYathlon, a massive venture which inspires children to enjoy physical activity.  They also have started a programme in schools which is very popular – it’s called “Eat Your Words”, where children learn about different food groups before cutting up vegetables and spelling their name.

Wattie’s have Project Cook for kids, and have been involved in Project Energize and the annual Cans Film Festival.

s11CCA and the Coca-Cola Company have launched the Move60 programme to get 100,000 New Zealand kids moving. It’s a massive project.

The sugar industry contributes funding to the Sugar Research and Advisory Centre to provide important information to consumers about sugar and health. This is a different sort of involvement but it’s still important for the community.

There are a number of projects which focus on breakfast:  Kickstart is a major initiative, first between 
Fonterra and Sanitarium
and later extended by the Government through the Ministry of Social Development. Some companies, such as George Weston Foods and Tasti, make contributions to KidsCan as well.  Kelloggs runs its global programme Better Days, while major breakfast cereal providers have contributed products to Breakfast Eaters Have it Better, a programme overseen by the Health Promotion Agency.

s13Many of our members do a huge amount in their workplaces as their commitment to the health and wellness of their staff. I could pick many but today I’m going to highlight Johnson & Johnson and Nestle.

Johnson & Johnson do all sorts of things. They have an on-site fitness centre and they also reimburse staff if they join a gym. They have a global corporate challenge where each office does something to promote healthy lifestyles. One year they gave pedometers to staff, and the office challenge was to do 10,000 steps per day.  They run the Auckland marathon in a team, and staff can choose to work at stand-up desks. It all contributes to s14creating an environment where health and wellbeing is a priority.

Nestle have some excellent components to their staff scheme.  Each staff member can do a nutrition e-learning module. Employees have created exercise groups: running, walking, boxing, stair club. Nestle runs a Global Corporate Challenge and a Biggest Loser Challenge for health and weight programmes. Health is a priority for the company and so there are many options for staff, including free flu shots, ergonomic assessments, team volunteering opportunities and other s15employee-assistance programmes.

Some of the industry’s biggest successes have been in the area of reformulation. I mentioned salt earlier, and many of our members have quietly and over time reduced salt levels in a wide range of products. Major companies are now doing the same with sugar and some of the reductions have been significant.

Every year, FGC surveys member companies in an effort to catalogue the

s16type of activities they are engaged in when it comes to health and nutrition in the community.

This year we targeted six key areas: nutrition expertise and advice, company policies, provision of resources, support for activity and wellbeing, food reformulation, and voluntary nutrition labelling information. The results provide a comprehensive snapshot of the work companies are doing.

The survey confirms, as I have just talked about, that FGC member companies are deeply concerned about the many factors involved in the development and management of these issues, and that every day they play a vital role, alongside other industry, public health, and government agencies, in improving the health and nutrition of New Zealanders. 

They are very actively delivering community programmes aimed at better health, including cooking and shopping skills, gardening, provision of breakfast, and encouraging more people to engage in activity and sports.

The survey showed that:

  • More than half of the companies who responded provide education material for community groups, schools and care facilities.
  • Many companies sponsor many initiatives, such as fuelled4life and the Nutrition Foundation’s own Food Week, and partner on key initiatives with other groups such as Dietitians NZ.
  • A great deal of work has been and is still being done to improve the nutrient profile of foods, especially in relation to sodium, sugar, fat, and increasing fruit, vegetables, and fibre. 
  • Many companies voluntarily produce nutrition information on food labels – the three most common being the Heart Foundation Tick, the percentage Daily Intake Guide and nutrient content claims. And now, of course, many are working on the Health Star Rating scheme.
  • Between 70% and 80% of companies have policies on nutrient guidelines, and, as I mentioned earlier, have registered dietitians or nutritionists on their staff to advise on the nutritional profile of foods.

Companies spend a great deal of time, money and energy on these and other healthy initiatives, and some of our multinational member companies spend billions of dollars each year.

So, significant work has been done over many years.

Of course more can be done, and FGC is continuing to do that. Bearing in mind that the companies doing this work produce a massive proportion of the most popular foods on our supermarket shelves, I believe the industry can hold its head up and say it’s playing its part in a more healthy New Zealand.