Politicians considering tougher anti-obesity laws found themselves congratulating fast-food giant McDonald's yesterday for its health drive.
McDonald's bosses drew the compliments during an appearance before a select committee hearing submissions on the Public Health Bill, which provides new ways for the Cabinet or Director-General of Health to act against suspected causes of obesity.
McDonald's was preceded yesterday by health sector groups who urged MPs to use the bill's new powers with courage and urgency.
McDonald's managing director Mark Hawthorne then told MPs the hamburger chain broadly backed the bill but opposed potential new regulatory powers within it.
He revealed that 20 per cent of the company's total sales in New Zealand now involved items from its "lighter choices" selection of healthier foods such as salads and fruit.
A $1 million change in the cooking oil used by McDonald's had cut saturated fat levels by 83 per cent, he said, and the amount of sugar in hamburger buns had been reduced by 40 per cent.
McDonald's had also voluntarily cut its television advertising during children's hours and now advertised only more nutritional food to children, Mr Hawthorne said.
"I'd never suggest you should support everything we do," he told MPs. "But love or hate McDonald's, we have the ability to create material change."
The company's voluntary reduction of advertising to children drew congratulations from well-known obesity campaigner Sue Kedgley, the Green MP who chairs the select committee.
Under the Public Health Bill voluntary codes can be introduced around food advertising and other risk factors relating to obesity.
McDonald's argued against that, saying it had shown leadership and demonstrated that self-regulation could work, although it acknowledged many of its competitors were not on the same song sheet.
Mr Hawthorne said some people in the industry - including health campaigners and competitors - had refused to talk with McDonald's about how to tackle obesity.
Until they opened up, he said, McDonald's would likely always be a first point of blame for obesity regardless of what it did.
The company's health push appears not to have cost it profits.
While MPs were clearly pleased to see the changes McDonald's had made, the company did not get an entirely smooth ride at the committee.
Labour MP Louisa Wall took McDonald's to task about the location of restaurants near schools, although Mr Hawthorne said schools had "no relevance" to where outlets were put.