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Experts Call for Action to Fill Gaps on Healthy Food Policy

Experts call for action to fill gaps on healthy food policies

New Zealand needs major improvements in food policies if it is going to seriously tackle the country’s obesity epidemic, according to findings in the University of Auckland’s second Healthy Food Environment Policy Index (Food-EPI) published today.

The Food-EPI was first published in 2014. The 2017 version was conducted in April to May 2017 by a New Zealand Expert Panel of 71 independent and government public health experts who rated the extent of implementation of policies on food environments and infrastructure support by the New Zealand Government against international best practice.

Their ratings of each of the 47 good practice indicators were based on documented evidence, validated by government officials, and international best practice benchmarks. The level of implementation was categorised as ‘high’, ‘medium’, ‘low’, or ‘very little, if any’.

Today’s report shows that over two thirds of the specific food policy indicators but less than one third of the infrastructure support were rated as ‘low’ or ‘very little, if any’ implementation. Taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages and zoning laws to restrict unhealthy food outlets around schools had no evidence of implementation whereas restricting unhealthy food marketing to children and having healthy food policies in schools and early childhood centres were rated as low implementation.

Four workshops around the country with the experts also identified and prioritised actions for the Government to improve food environments and contribute to a reduction in obesity and diet-related diseases.

The unique report card, funded by the Health Research Council, is New Zealand’s second systematic study on national food policies and it showed that, while there were some strengths, there were a large number of healthy food policies that still need to be implemented in New Zealand.

Nutrition expert Professor Boyd Swinburn says some progress had been made in some areas since 2014, but that New Zealand is still in the grips of an obesity crisis and progress to improve children’s health remained very slow.

“Many large implementation gaps were identified by the experts, including for policies recommended by the World Health Organisation such as healthy food in schools, fiscal policies and marketing restrictions for unhealthy foods.”

Professor Swinburn, of the University’s School of Population Health, says the Expert Panel recommended 53 actions in total but prioritised 9 for immediate action.

The 9 recommendations for immediate action are:

• Strengthen the Childhood Obesity Plan
o Including policy objectives and targets to reduce obesity prevalence and inequalities, and more and stronger policies to create healthy children’s food environments,
o Increasing funding for the implementation and evaluation of the plan

• Set targets for
o reducing childhood overweight and obesity by 8 percentage points (from one-third to one-quarter) by 2025 with decreasing inequalities
o reducing mean population intakes of salt, sugar and saturated fat based on World Health Organisation recommendations
o voluntary reformulation of composition (salt, sugar and saturated fat) in key food groups.

• Increase funding for population nutrition promotion to at least 10 per cent of obesity/overweight health care costs

• Regulate unhealthy food marketing as defined by the WHO nutrition profiling model, to children up to 18 years
o in broadcast media, including during children’s peak viewing times (up to 9pm)
o in non-broadcast media, including food packaging, sport sponsorship and social media
o in children’s settings, including ‘school food zones’.

• Ensure healthy food in schools and early childhood education services

• Introduce a substantial (eg 20 percent) tax on sugar-sweetened beverages

• Strengthen the Health Star Rating System

• Implement the new Eating and Activity Guidelines

• Conduct a new national nutrition survey for children

“The Expert Panel strongly urges the government to act on these recommendations to improve the diets of New Zealanders, especially for children, and to reduce the burgeoning health care costs of obesity and unhealthy diets,” Professor Swinburn says.

“Unhealthy food environments drive unhealthy diets. Dietary risk factors and excess energy intake account for 11.4 percent of health loss in New Zealand.

“New Zealand adults and children have the third highest rate of overweight and obesity within OECD countries and the costs attributed to overweight and obesity are probably close to a billion dollars a year by now. The experts recommended that about 10 percent of these costs should be spent on prevention which would mean at least a doubling of current investment in nutrition promotion.”

The report does show some good progress in other areas of food policies and infrastructure support.

The area Food Labelling scored a ‘high’ for ‘ingredient lists and/or nutrient declarations’ and ‘regulatory systems for health and nutrition claims’.

Several areas have improved their scores from the 2014 report. Under the ‘Platforms for interaction’ category, the four sub sections of co-ordination between local and national governments, platforms for government and food sector and platforms for government and civil society, as well as systems-based approach to obesity prevention, all improved from a ranking of ‘low’ in 2014 to ‘medium’ in 2017.

“The top priority from the Expert Panel was to convert the currently weak childhood obesity plan into something which has real targets for reducing prevalence and is backed by serious policies to get us there. Bringing New Zealand’s rate of childhood overweight and obesity down from one in three to one in four by 2025 was considered achievable by the panel because one in four was the current rate in Australia. However, the action on healthy food environments will need to be greatly strengthened to achieve even these modest targets,” Professor Swinburn says.


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