Compared to previous elections, this time around there has been very little rhetoric around encouraging healthy eating and improving the long-term health outcomes of New Zealanders. Covid-19 has not surprisingly taken the focus away from the chronic epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease that we currently face. For Part 3 of our Election 2020 series, FoodTruths wanted to find out what policies, if any, are aimed at encouraging healthy eating and improving the quality of food consumed by New Zealanders.
At the recent Press Leaders Debate, both Jacinda Adern and Judith Collins ruled out implementing a sugar tax in this term. It was a firm no from National and in Damien O’Connor’s response he stated that Labour are “currently not considering it”. The Minister acknowledged that high sugar foods are an issue but are placing the responsibility on the food industry to be “proactive and responsive in this area”.
Gareth Hughes stated that the Green Party would investigate a levy on sugary drinks, which leaves The Opportunities Party as the only party promising a 20% junk food tax as part of their Preventive Healthcare policy. This tax would use the existing Healthy Star Rating framework, so for example products with a one or two Health Star rating would be taxed. Deputy Leader Shai Navot acknowledges that this is just a starting point and there are obvious limitations with this system, one being that fast food outlets would not be taxed under this framework. Funds raised from this tax would be reinvested into primary care and ensuring communities have access to affordable fruit and vegetables.
We spoke to Barbara Kuriger, the National Party representative, who highlighted education as their main focus when questioned on policies around healthy eating, but did not provide any specific planned strategies. National’s Health Policy document acknowledges obesity and its complications as a growing problem in New Zealand with promises to replace their 2015 Childhood Obesity Plan with a new national strategy covering all age groups.
Labour pointed again to the food industry “as a way to reduce obesity rates”. In response to a report on obesity by the Food Industry Taskforce, they will look to engage with industry. Prioritising food marketing, improving formulation and labelling of food and beverages and creating healthier retail environments - which translates to limiting product placement and price promotions of energy-dense, nutrient poor food and beverages in supermarkets.
As we have seen in the past with programmes such as the Healthy Eating Health Action (which was implemented and then scrapped when National came into power), Labour are developing a $47.6 million programme to promote healthy eating and physical activity in schools. If re-elected they will also roll out a free healthy school lunch programme to 200,000 students across the country.
The Green Party plan to tackle food-related chronic health problems by also focusing on schools, firstly to “provide education to enable students to grow their own healthy food”. They want food and drinks sold in schools to be nutritious by introducing standards and guidelines. Although there are current guidelines for schools around the provision of healthy food options, these are not mandatory which is why unhealthy food and drinks are still sold in school tuck shops around the country.
As well as implementing a junk food tax, TOPs Preventive Healthcare policy includes banning all junk food marketing to children and ensuring that local communities have a say on the availability of junk food outlets in their area. Presumably they are referring here to communities wishing to limit fast food outlets rather than adding more!
Labour acknowledges that changes still need to be made to reduce the sugar content of food products and also to educate Kiwis around what is in the products we eat. The current Health Star Rating system, which has recently been reviewed, is voluntary but could be mandatory “if industry does not engage on their own accord”.
Barbara Kuriger isn’t a fan of the Health Star Rating system. She doesn’t believe that current labelling is that clear and feels that we “haven’t nailed it yet as a country”. Her preference is for simplifying nutrition messages, opting for something as simple as showing the sugar content on a food label in the form of a teaspoon. The Greens would implement a mandatory food labelling system and Gareth Hughes points out that his Country of Origin Bill was passed this term, despite the fact that it has been placed on the back burner due to Covid-19.
Our take home?
Prevention has always been the poor cousin in government policy and, even though health is at the forefront of our minds at the moment, the link between healthy eating and policy remains weak. Healthy diets depend upon the ability to access good food (both the means to buy it and it being available) and the knowledge to make healthy choices (food literacy) in the environment in which we live. Addressing obesity, diabetes and improving the health outcomes of New Zealanders are complex and long-term issues that we all should consider when casting our vote on election day.
Coming soon will be Part 4 of our Election 2020 series where we will cover food waste, plastic packaging and alternative proteins.