National food strategy needed to fix obesity epidemic

A report led by public health researchers finds that the Government has made little progress on healthy food policies.

Fresh fruit and veges
A national strategy to support healthy,sustainable food systems would pay dividends for health and the economy.

Unhealthy diets are responsible for about one fifth of all preventable ill-health and premature deaths but, according to a new report from a panel of more than 50 independent and government experts nationwide, the Government has made virtually no progress on implementing healthy food policies in the last three years.

Dr Sally Mackay, from the School of Population Health at the University of Auckland, led the review of our food systems and nutrition. She said, “In health and environmental terms, our current food systems are our greatest liability but with a concerted national effort, they could be our greatest asset.”

Since agriculture is by far New Zealand’s largest contributor to greenhouse gases and other environmental damage, the panel is calling for an overarching Food Systems and Nutrition Strategy to drive changes towards healthy, sustainable food systems.

The Food-EPI study (Healthy Food Environment Policy Index) is the latest in a series first conducted in 2014. “Unfortunately, the Government has continued the failure of the last two terms of National-led governments to not act to introduce food policies recommended by the World Health Organisation that would turn around New Zealand’s massive obesity and diabetes problems.”

The review finds that without the transformation of our food systems, the Government will be unable to fulfil its international obligations to the Paris Agreement on climate change and towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Without reform the review doubts if progress can be made on Government priorities to lift child health and wellbeing, reduce inequities, and clean up polluted waterways.

The rating by more than 50 public health experts did show the Government performing well in some areas when compared to international best practice. Co-investigator Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University, said, “We have a robust system for nutrition and health claims on foods. There is transparency in policy development processes and providing access to information for the public. The NZ Health Survey regularly monitors prevalence of non-communicable diseases and their risk factors and inequalities."

However, virtually no progress has been made since the initial 2014 Food-EPI assessment, and 60 per cent of the 47 indicators were rated as ‘low’ or ‘very little, if any’ implementation. “New Zealand has an excellent opportunity to take the prevention of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases like diabetes, seriously,” said Professor Swinburn.

The report found that there are 16 government agencies with major roles in food systems and another 15 with minor roles, but there is no overarching strategic or coordinating mechanism. A strategic approach to New Zealand’s food systems should have the explicit purpose of achieving the four societal goals of promoting human health, social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity.

Dr Mackay said, “At the moment, food-related policy is characterised by fragmentation, inaction, and insufficient focus on the health, environment and equity goals that food systems can achieve.
“The acute Covid-19 crisis showed what a concerted, science-based, government-led approach can achieve and the same principles could be applied to the chronic crisis in our food systems. Covid-19 also exposed other cracks in our food systems as many families dropped into food poverty and had to join the long lines outside food banks.”

The panel in the Food-EPI report also prioritised 12 further actions for the Government to reduce obesity and diet-related diseases including ensuring households receive an adequate income to enable autonomy to make healthy food choices.

Dr Mackay said that “The voluntary approaches we currently have in place are clearly ineffective and inadequate. High priorities are for government regulation of the marketing of unhealthy food to children, for all schools and early learning services to have healthy food policies, and for the Health Star Ratings system to be made mandatory.”

The report repeated the call for the Government to adopt a UK-style levy on sugary drinks manufacturers and for a National Nutrition Survey to be undertaken. “We are flying blind on our biggest health risk factor because the last child and adult national surveys were conducted 18 and 12 years ago”, said Dr Mackay.

About this report

The Food-EPI Study is an initiative of INFORMAS (International network for Food and Obesity/NCDs Research, Monitoring and Action Support), an international network of researchers founded in 2013 to monitor and benchmark food environments, government policies and private sector actions and practices globally. This study is funded by a Heart Foundation project grant.

Media contact: Gilbert Wong, 021 917942