New anti-obesity efforts are window-dressing and underline the Government's "astonishing negligence", the country's former chief education health and nutrition adviser says.
Grant Schofield, professor of public health at Auckland University of Technology, was dismissive of measures confirmed today such as removing junk food advertising from at least 300m around primary schools.
He said what was actually needed were taxes to drive up prices and warning labels to clearly and prominently tell people what was in products. A "pathological" and ultra-processed food environment was driving tooth rot, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, stroke and mental health problems.
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Schofield, who was appointed to the nutrition adviser role in 2017 but later quit in frustration at a lack of action, said either officials weren't properly advising Health Minister David Clark, or he was ignoring such advice.
"It's actually astonishing that a Labour Government is lagging so far on this, given their history of good public policy and actually thinking about the social outcomes.
"I get despondent when they say they're compassionate... but when we are anaesthetising 3, 4, 5-year-olds to remove several teeth that are rotten because of the food supply, that's not compassionate. It's just negligence."
After coming to power the Labour-led Government told the industry to set up a taskforce and come up with ways to help reduce obesity. They sent 51 recommendations in a report last December, and Clark and Food Safety Minister Damien O'Connor have now said what they want prioritised.
Measures include more products reducing salt, sugar and fat; extending time slots on TV when junk food cannot be advertised; and steps taken to stop advertising reaching young people on social media and websites like YouTube.
The industry has been asked to strengthen four recommendations covering marketing to young people, including banning fixed-site outdoor advertising (including digital, billboard and sandwich boards) of junk products within 300m of the main gate of primary and intermediate schools.
Elaine Rush, professor of nutrition at AUT and who has helped develop children's nutrition programmes, was less critical of the industry recommendations, saying "they show willingness".
"They should be encouraged to do what they can. Some things that are happening like free fruit for children in Countdown stores - we should be supporting the food industry and saying it's good."
However, Rush said the Government needed to address food insecurity, which meant one in five children live in households without enough money for healthy food. Paying living wages and increasing benefit levels could help address that, she said, as well as a shift in how we feed ourselves, through efforts like community gardens.
"It is a complex situation, but we are a country that can produce more than enough fruit and vegetables to feed our population. Obesity is a form of malnourishment; too much body fat is a sign of a poor diet."
Clark said the industry work aligned with other Government efforts including a free healthy lunches in schools programme, promotion of water-only policies in hospitals and schools, and nearly $50m for a health active-learning initiative.
Katherine Rich, chief executive of the Food & Grocery Council, whose members include Nestle and Coca-Cola and which was secretariat for the industry taskforce, said progress had already been made on many recommendations, including reformulating products.
The council wanted the Government to fund another campaign to promote the Health Star Rating system, under which companies voluntarily put ratings on products.
"As made clear in the report, the food and beverage industry is committed to continuing to work with government, non-government organisations and the community to address factors that contribute to obesity."
The NZ Food & Grocery Council says taxes to artificially raise the price of energy-dense foods hadn't worked anywhere in the world.