By Katherine Rich

During 13 years with the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council it has been my privilege to work alongside so many wonderful people who are so passionate about what they’re doing.

Our organisation is small in relation to other industry associations, but it is mighty because of its network of members, who all volunteer their time and energy to work on a wide range of issues. That network extends to experts in Australia and around the globe, which meant, regardless of the topic, there was always best-practice advice available to me and local officials.

The past decade has been a time of real change in the sector.

FGC’s membership has increased by 130 companies to more than 250, a reflection of the pace of change and the need for businesses to stay up to date.

We’ve assisted the improvement of law, including the Food Act, changes to Cosmetics Standards, Hazardous Goods, Fair Trading, and the Commerce Act.

One of my favourite “improvements” was the removal of over-the-top regulations for new toothpastes, anti-dandruff shampoos, and nappy creams. New Zealand was one of the few countries to treat these products under medicine-related law instead of the Cosmetics Standard. This meant consumers often did not get access to new variants available around the globe because it was too expensive to get registrations. I recall one member telling me it cost around $100,000 in consultants every time they wanted to launch a new product into our market, so often they didn’t bother and we missed out on new innovation.

Medsafe agreed the rules were silly, but kept saying it wasn’t on their “work programme” and they had no intention of seeking change. We went to then-Health Minister Tony Ryall, and he also thought our rules were out of step with the world. He took less than a minute of deliberation before saying to officials “let’s put it in the work programme”. Some might say “groceries, who cares”, but the effect was for the first time our consumers had access to more choice and the latest products.

The same can be said on the reformulation of many foods and beverages over the past 15 years to reduce salt, sugar and fat, with FGC members working hard to research, develop and launch healthier options. Beverages are the best example of this, and now there are low- or no-sugar options of all the major brands. Consumers have switched to these options and it’s been all done without the need for punitive taxes, which many in public health continue to campaign for.

I’m particularly proud of the way FGC led an industry group, which included FMCG, hospitality, fast food, supermarkets and advertisers, to look at other improvements for the health of Kiwis. The Food Industry Taskforce made many decisions that resulted in positive changes to advertising rules and the reformulation of many foods.

I have been in awe of many FGC members whose work led the way on new approaches to the labeling of packaging, whether it be the Health Star Rating system to promote healthier choices or the rollout of the Australasian Recycling Label programme.

Most multinational companies in New Zealand have played their part in improving our food and grocery environment through participation in FGC projects. But if there is any sadness it would be that companies such as Proctor & Gamble and MARS appear to have stepped back from their responsibility of involvement in New Zealand’s big issues.

The mantra of FGC members is if we are part of the problem then we’ll work hard to be part of the solution. It makes sense these billion-dollar companies can’t continue to send tonnes of plastic and other packaging to New Zealand and freeload on sustainability initiatives of their industry colleagues who are working hard to increase recyclability and reduce plastics.

The same goes for foods so inextricably linked to discussions about obesity and wellness.

It’s my hope companies such as these will return to play their part and see their participation in the industry-wide collaborations through FGC as part of their social licence to operate here.

Finally, a word about changes to competition law, which FGC has been supporting for well over a decade.

The suite of changes made by the Government, which include updates to the Fair-Trading Act to prohibit unconscionable conduct, the Commerce Act to strengthen prohibitions of the abuse of market power, and the introduction of a strong mandatory Grocery Code of Conduct and a Grocery Regulator, will make a difference for suppliers.

None of these will make our industry a paradise, but they will ensure there are clearer boundaries for conduct and the treatment of suppliers. The introduction of the regulator, which will have wide and extensive powers, will ensure that scrutiny of behaviour and practice continues.

I would like to thank all members of FGC for their support and work over the years. It has been my absolute privilege to work alongside and meet thousands within our industry. Thank you to all members, our Chair, and our Board. Thank you also to the mighty FGC team of Kira Mikelatos, Brent Webling, and Carole Inkster, which has worked together for over a decade.