A few eyebrows may have been raised in response to last November's announcement that National Party rising star Katherine Rich was to be the new chief executive of the Food & Grocery Council.

While some people might think the council's top job was an odd choice for a woman once destined for a Cabinet post in a John Key Government, Rich has no regrets. She's convinced it's a job that uses all her talents - not only her ability to operate across all political parties, but her experience in the food industry. "This brings together a lot of things I used to enjoy before I was sworn in," says Rich.

After graduating from the University of Otago in 1990 with a BA/BCom degree in economics and marketing, she started her career at the Ministry of Agriculture, and for 12 years worked in marketing positions in the primary and public sector.

Rich didn't start her career in politics until she was in her early 30s, and points out that while she was best known for her education and welfare roles in Opposition, she also chaired the commerce select committee at one point and was spokeswoman for economic development.

Now firmly established in her new role, Rich patiently explains why she left politics. "Because I wanted to strike a balance between professional life and family life, which I've now done," she says succinctly.

"I knew I would not be able to fulfil my commitments as a mother and be a minister. Politics is all or nothing.

"I always had a burning ambition to serve in a Cabinet but having a family changed that. It was not an emotional decision but a practical one."

In Opposition, says Rich, you are regularly working 15-to-16-hour days and that only goes up when you're in the Cabinet.

While she is certainly putting in the hours in her new job, it is not as all-consuming as her previous career. And she can live in the same town where she works.

She explains her brief: "They want someone who will talk about the food industry in a constructive way. The NZ Food & Grocery Council represents a $15 billion industry; it deserves to be heard."

The council's new chief executive soon made her presence known by battling - successfully - against the mandatory addition of folic acid to the nation's bread supply. She has also been working with the Ministry of Consumer Affairs on a workable country of origin labelling regime.

There is also a more ambitious long-term goal, held by her board chairman, George Adams, the managing director of Coca-Cola Amatil NZ.

And that is for Rich to campaign for a food ministry, which would promote the cause of the New Zealand food industry here and abroad.

"The food industry here is the largest industry in NZ yet there is no designated food minister," says Adams. "It's all driven by consumer protection or food standards. You've got the largest industry, the biggest economic advantage that NZ has, without an organisation, a minister advocating for it."

Adams is very pleased with Rich's appointment. "When our former chair Peter McClure met her, we just thought if we could agree terms that Katherine was a standout," he says. "She's very savvy around Wellington, she knows her way around which is very useful. Part of the challenge that we've got with an organisation like ours is getting the doors of politicians open to us. Katherine comes with that credibility which gets her in beyond first base."

Adams thinks Rich has "read herself into the job well", and likes the projects she has picked to work on.

Food labelling, the obesity debate, and widening the council's involvement are all on her to-do list.

Rich has already made a few changes. Among them was installing a legal adviser, Philippa Gordon, to help the council negotiate its way through regulatory changes for the food industry as New Zealand falls into line with Australia in shared transtasman food standards.

"My aim over the last few months has been to learn the ropes but I want to stamp my own mark on the role," says Rich.

She replaced the redoubtable Brenda Cuttress, who had been at the helm for 20 years.

The new chief executive is taking pains to meet with New Zealand's two main supermarket chains, whose whims obviously have a big impact on her members. She has already spent time with Foodstuffs in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and has been invited to spend some time with Woolworths Australia, owner of Progressive Enterprises. "To be an effective advocate, you've got to have in-depth understanding of the grocery sector," she says.

In Wellington, Rich has so far met most Government ministers on council business but is also mindful of working within an MMP Parliament. She's seen the Green Party's Sue Kedgley, founder of the Safe Food Campaign, and caught up with old adversary Ruth Dyson, now Labour health spokeswoman. Rich is also working with her Australian counterparts, and attended the Australian Food and Grocery Council conference in Queensland.

"Because New Zealand and Australia share joint food standards, it is important we work together on issues for our members," she says. And the issues are coming thick and fast.

Some groups are pushing for "traffic light" labelling on food - red for unhealthy, green for healthy - but the industry is opposed. That sort of approach presents a very simple answer to something that is very complex, says Rich.

"It would put a red light on a great many New Zealand products such as honey, cheese, milk, Marmite - all part of an average healthy diet," she says.

"We'll play our part in healthy food initiatives but the food industry can't be blamed for every negative outcome.

"That's where education comes in, learning about healthy eating and a balanced diet."

Rich used to find that a trip to the supermarket in Dunedin inevitably meant a chat with constituents. When she goes to the supermarket now, she takes the opportunity to look at labels, and looks for food companies to recruit for the council.

"I've always bought on brand. I'm probably a marketer's dream, I never budge," she says. Music to the ears of food manufacturers worried about the current trend by shoppers to own brands.

But there's no doubt Rich is enjoying her new role and the people she has met.

"One of the the really refreshing things about this job is working with FGC's members - who are some of the top businesspeople in the country. They have an interest in politics but are not consumed by it."

Katherine Rich - The CV
* Project analyst, Ministry of Agriculture, Palmerston North.
* Project analyst, Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, Wellington.
* Marketing manager, knitting yarns division, Alliance Textiles.
* General manager, Silverstream Ltd, Dunedin.
* National MP 1999-2008.