Junk food advertising will be removed from around schools in anti-obesity measures also likely to change what’s promoted in your supermarket aisle.
The Weekend Herald can reveal a raft of measures agreed with food and drink manufacturers and sellers, to be confirmed today by Health Minister David Clark and Food Safety Minister Damien O’Connor.
More products will have ingredients changed to reduce salt, sugar and fat; time slots on TV when junk food cannot be advertised could be extended; and steps taken to stop advertising reaching young people on social media and sites like YouTube.
The actions are voluntary and proposed by the industry itself, and some are already followed by some companies. They fall far short of what public health advocates say is needed to curb the obesity crisis, including taxes on junk products, banning sponsorship of childrens’ sports, and selling only healthy food in schools.
Clark said he’d instructed officials to work on monitoring the industry self-regulation. Asked if tougher steps would be taken if results weren’t good, he said it “isn’t the time for us to be making threats”.
“But we will be keeping a close watch on developments overseas and see what’s working elsewhere… the ball is in the food industry’s court.”
The recommendations come from an industry taskforce, set-up at the Government’s request and representing manufacturers, retailers and fast food companies and the hospitality sector.
Fifty-one recommendations were sent in December last year, some of which have or are already being implemented. Clark and O’Connor have now said what they want prioritised, including:
• Reformulating more products to have less sugar, salt and saturated fat, to align with an Australian “healthy food partnership” initiative.
• Fast food outlets to agree on voluntary ways to give customers more information on healthier options, both on the menu and through staff “if asked”. Survey what rules in Australia cover nutritional information on restaurant menus, “with a view to voluntary application of the best elements in New Zealand”.
• Work on extending Health Star Ratings to all eligible products, instead of the current situation of companies selecting a limited range. Bring more prominent labelling on sugar content, expected to be recommended by a current Australasian food regulation review.
The industry has been asked to strengthen four recommended actions covering marketing to young people. As currently proposed, those are:
• Banning fixed-site outdoor advertising (including digital, billboard and sandwich boards) of high saturated fat, salt and added sugar products within 300 metres of the main gate of primary and intermediate schools. At the same time, work with convenience stores close to these schools to tone down branding on and in store.
• Talk to television broadcasters about extending voluntary restrictions on unhealthy food advertising during children’s programming times. During after school weekdays these currently stop at about 5pm, depending on the channel.
• Industry and the Association of NZ Advertisers to agree best practice guidelines for controlling the “inadvertent” advertising of junk food and drink to children who are online and using social media. This could include the use of age verification systems. These are sometimes used by alcohol websites, including asking for a date of birth.
The detail and timing for implementation is still being ironed out, including what recommendations made by the taskforce that weren’t identified as a Government priority might be approved.
Clark and O’Connor told industry they want other changes that also align with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. In particular, “limiting advertising, marketing and sponsorship” of junk food and drink and “limiting product placement and price promotions of energy-dense, nutrient-poor food and beverages in supermarkets”.
The Health Minister said he was encouraged to see the industry recommend advertising-free zones around primary and intermediate schools, because “the early years of children’s lives dictate future health outcomes”.
Some DHBs – serving residents beset with obesity-related disease – have recently called for the Government to bring in a sugar tax, and make sure only healthy food and drink is provided in schools.
Clark told the Weekend Herald that both those steps could have unintended consequences.
“If you force that on schools, the dairy around the corner will sell that [unhealthy] stuff and the kids will get it anyway. You’ve got to get the local community owning it and driving the change.
“If you look at the UK where they have introduced a sugar tax, a lot of the soft drink companies have reformulated towards artificial sweeteners. And there are some in the scientific community who… have noticed a correlation that seems to be very strong between artificial sweeteners and obesity.”