Stuff | 30 May 2021
Fears junk food regulation chilled by free trade agreements
by Bridie Witton
Efforts to combat child obesity have fallen behind the pack as international free-trade agreements threaten to put a “chill” on junk food regulations, experts say.
The Government would face legal challenges from food and beverage companies if it sought to regulate the packaging and marketing of unhealthy foods, despite New Zealand children being among the most obese in the world, global obesity expert Boyd Swinburn said.
“We have had a Labour Government for four years and the word ‘obesity’ has not crossed their lips, let alone gone into policy. If the Government wanted to enact anything around marketing restrictions they are going to get a lot of sabre-waving,” he said.
“That spooks the hell out of officials, and foreign affairs. It creates a regulation chill.”
His comments follow a report written by Kelly Garton, a research fellow of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Auckland. She found that free trade agreements, whose contents remain secret during the negotiation process, can stop governments from regulating junk food.
Such agreements include the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement to liberalise trade and investment between 12 Pacific-rim countries, which New Zealand ratified in 2017.
New Zealand had since fallen behind countries like Chile, whose tough obesity measures reduced the consumption of sugary drinks. It banned sales of junk food and drink in schools, adopted clear black and white labels for all sugary drinks, unhealthy snacks and packaged foods, and restricted its marketing to children in 2016. A state in Mexico also banned the sale of junk food and drink to children last year.
New Zealand has voluntary Health Star ratings, but it was “ineffective and not being adhered to”, she said.
Many studies have shown food labelling lowers the rate of obese and overweight young people, but the food industry could argue mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling would be a barrier to trade, she said.
“Our research raised red flags of areas where we... have to be careful with what we are signing away. We need an evidence-based system for our foods, so it can’t be marketed to children.”
A recent review of the Health Star Rating system said it was working well, the Ministry for Primary Industries food science and risk assessment director, Dr Fiona Thomson-Carter said. As a result of the review it had strengthened its system, and from November 2020 industry had two years to update labels. Improvements included better distinction of water and low sugar drinks to high sugar drinks like juice, and better distinction of salt and sugar content in food.
New Zealand led international work on nutrition labelling, and was working domestically to progress evidence-based food labelling, Thomson-Carter said. With Australia, it was investigating adding sugar labels to food and drink.
Swinburn, a professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland, said the trade agreements came through a “very undemocratic, non-transparent process”.
The law needed to be strengthened so that public health was not badly affected by free-trade agreements. He has struggled to find out what impacts trade agreements might have on public health before they were signed, or whether officials had assessed this.
“They did a national assessment, but to be honest most of that is around economics... health is a footnote at best,” he said.
As a result, New Zealand was lagging “so far behind those countries... that we used to call banana republics”. Hospitals were grinding under the weight of obesity and diabetes, he said.
Nearly four in 10 – or 39 per cent – of New Zealand children are overweight or obese, second only to the United States where 42 per cent of five to 19-year-olds are obese when compared to all OECD countries. Between 1990 and 2016, the proportion of Kiwi kids who were obese increased by 45 per cent.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who did not want to be named, said all New Zealand’s free trade agreements include exceptions that cover measures necessary for the protection of human health or life, provided those measures meet certain requirements. For example, that they do not unreasonably or arbitrarily discriminate against imported products, and do not constitute a disguised restriction on trade.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said it was taking a “broad population approach” to achieving healthy weight, focussing on nutrition and physical activity. It listed a variety of initiatives it was involved with, including working with district health boards to a national healthy food and drink policy, promoting healthy activities in schools, updating food and nutrition guidelines, and physical activity and weight management guidelines for young people.