I recently had an interesting conversation with someone who'd worked for a large drinks manufacturer in the UK when the tax on sugary drinks was implemented. It was a difficult time, he said. The company decided to reformulate its popular beverages in order to bring the sugar content down below the higher tax threshold. It was a hard task; there was consumer push-back; sales dropped by 25 per cent.
But only for a while. After several months, sales of the new, lower-sugar drinks returned to original levels. People got used to it. The introduction of the tax had done good things: got sugar out of the food supply, and the drinks industry had weathered the storm and survived.
Research shows this is true across the UK industry. In the years before the tax came in, manufacturers removed 45 million kilos of sugar a year from the food supply. Since the tax, the sugar content in drinks has come down by another 29 per cent.
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Crucially, though, the sugar content of non-taxed drinks and foods has hardly changed at all, despite voluntary sugar reduction initiatives in the food industry.
So it seems when it comes to improving the food supply, regulation works better than relying on industry to do it themselves.
What is the food industry best at? It's best at manufacturing and marketing its products.
The industry may have just done a marketing job on the Government. This springs to mind on reading the report from the Food Industry Taskforce on "Addressing Factors Contributing to Obesity". The Taskforce produced this report more than a year ago; it and the response from the ministers of health and food safety have only just been released.
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Both documents have been criticised by prominent public health figures. The Health Coalition Aotearoa – which includes every coal-face public health organisation you can think of – has said the report shows "the food industry wants to stay in a business-as-usual mode with a few minor tweaks around the edges". It says it is "appalled at the Government's very meek and delayed response" to such a serious problem.
It's hard not to see what they mean. The report is full of vague language: self-checks; voluntary guidelines; checklists. It's not clear how progress will be measured. The ministers' response is almost equally vague. Thanks, it seems to say; carry on.
Professor Boyd Swinburn, chair of the coalition, wrote in an open letter to Kiwi parents that the report was "waffle, and the government poured sugary syrup over it". Only a handful of the recommendations, he said, were useful.
To me, the report shows that some companies are taking positive steps. But it's mystifying as to why the Government won't bolster this with meaningful regulations; things that have been recommended by health experts for years.
Swinburn echoed the frustration of many in public health when he wrote: "For a Government with a commitment to make New Zealand the best place in the world for your children to grow up in, you'd think they might want to help prevent them becoming fat, sad, and toothless".