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Q A: Transcript of Nikki Kaye interview

Published: 2:31PM Sunday April 07, 2013 Source: ONE News


SUSAN WOOD We all care about the food we eat, but how much are we swayed by claims that a certain product will reduce cholesterol, cause us to lose weight or keep our bones strong? The government is going to crack down on reckless promises and make food companies back their claims with evidence. Nikki Kaye is the Minister for Food Safety. A very good morning to you.

NIKKI KAYE, Minister for Food Safety Good morning.

SUSAN So, a new law. You’re addressing a problem. How widespread is the issue of false health claims on food?

NIKKI Well, I think that what’s important is that we are putting in a regulation which will mean that we can have greater confidence in terms of what is on the labelling of our food.

SUSAN But, I mean, there must be a problem if you’re addressing it.

NIKKI Well, that’s right. So, it’s not only an issue in terms of compliance. We do over a million tests a year, but then secondly it’s about ..

SUSAN So how many shonky claims are there?

NIKKI Well, again, you don’t know what you don’t know, but what I can tell you is that we find stuff every year that is shonky. But then secondly, I think what’s-

SUSAN Is it a big percentage of the tests you do?

NIKKI Well, again, the point is that we get a percentage of tests that happen, and obviously there are a group that are shonky, but what today is about is actually on certain labels we know that some of those claims are not correct, and we will be assigning a standard which will enable 200 new health claims to be made.

SUSAN Why are you giving them three years to get those labels corrected? It shouldn’t take that long, should it?

NIKKI Well, 50% of our exports are food. We have a whole lot of small producers. If we turned the switch tomorrow, that would add cost to a whole lot of food producers.

SUSAN It’s taken you 10 years to get to this point - not you personally, I understand - but it seems to move very slowly.

NIKKI Well, that’s because food is quite complex. So if you take issues of labelling, then, I mean, you look at the traffic light system - you can end up having unintended consequences if you get it wrong.

SUSAN Is it going to be- I mean, what sort of policing will you have? Remember the Ribena case. 2007. A couple of school kids do a science experiment and find out there’s not the vitamin C in there. Is that the sort of- I mean, are we relying on school kids to police this?

NIKKI Well, no. As I said before, we have a compliance team within the Ministry of Primary Industries. We are world-leading in terms of our food systems. We have over a million tests a year. We have certification systems. So we have a range of ways to police this.

SUSAN And yet organic food - yesterday’s Herald had a story - organic food- food is being labelled that is not organic, organic, and people are paying a lot more and getting away with it.

NIKKI Well, I think the point is that we have a range of things within the system to ensure that we police that. If New Zealanders are concerned, they can ring the Ministry for Primary Industries, and that happens on a regular basis.

SUSAN But you can’t give me a number of the shonky stuff you’re coming out with of those million tests, and you actually don’t know how many poor claims or wrong claims or bad claims are on our food, do you?

NIKKI Well, the point is we have millions of products, Susan-

SUSAN But you don’t know, do you? Nobody knows.

NIKKI Well, the reality is-

SUSAN Do you know how many shonky claims there are out there? You don’t.

NIKKI Well, you don’t know because we have a system which is if we tested everything, it would add a massive cost to the price of food. So the way the system works is we have a verification system; we also have over a million tests, as I’ve said before, which is a huge amount for a small nation. And I think the point is that we do know that when we do those tests a high proportion of them do come back as correct. So, I mean, I can’t give you the exact percentage, but what I am telling you is we are world-leading, because we have not only a verification system, we have good labelling. And what today is about-

SUSAN We could do better, though, couldn’t we? And, look, the Herald would not be running a food column every week telling us what’s in our food and what stabiliser 471 means if our food was better labelled.

NIKKI Well, I think that’s the point. Today is about actually requiring that there is evidence-based claims for health benefits in terms of food.

SUSAN OK, bad food. There is a system around traffic light - green means good; red means bad; orange something in the middle. You’ve rejected that, but what are you going to do to label bad food as not good for your health? Because, I mean, we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

NIKKI Well, we’re currently looking at a potential rating system. Australia and New Zealand ministers met last year and rejected the traffic light system, because there are unintended consequences. So if you use the traffic light system, take milk versus fizzy drink. You could end up coming out with a red for milk.

SUSAN Which is nonsensical.

NIKKI Exactly. So the star rating system that we’re looking at will look at a range of other nutrients, and I think if we work with industry, if we work with public health organisations, we can come up with a better system.

SUSAN New Zealanders, we consume about 9 grams of salt a day. That’s about a teaspoon and a half. If you reduce that to a teaspoon, 24% fewer strokes, going on international evidence. What are you doing to get the salt out of our diets?

NIKKI And this is the point. Today’s announcement will enable New Zealanders to have much better information about the nutrients in-

SUSAN That’s only health claims, though. That’s not getting the bad stuff out.

NIKKI Well, no, it is. That’s the point. If you look at what Uncle Toby’s have done as a result of this regulation, they’ve reduced the amount of sugar in their cereals by 67 tonnes, Susan. The point is that by having these labels industry will be, I think, will shift to have much healthier food, because consumers will require it.

SUSAN Doesn’t the whole labelling need an overhaul, though? Doesn’t it need to be really clear that what is in your food- I mean, you can say, for example, it’s New Zealand made, and it’s 70% made here. It’s not 100%. There’s lots of confusion around the labelling.

NIKKI Well, again, there are a number of issues, but what I can say to you is today is a big milestone in terms of a decade of work to ensure that New Zealanders know what is in their food from a healthier perspective, but then secondly this star rating system will help in terms of simplification..

SUSAN When will we get some sort of star rating system?

NIKKI Well, again, it’s going to be voluntary, but we will be working with industry-

SUSAN And it doesn’t warn people off bad food, does it? You don’t want to warn people off food, do you? Would Coca Cola get a star?

NIKKI Well, again, it might not, because it will depend what’s in the food. But what I would say to you is the point is if you get it wrong, if you don’t design your system properly, whether it’s a traffic light system or a star system, you can send out bad messages.

SUSAN Sure, I get that, but we don’t seem to have a coherent system.

NIKKI Well, I think we do, actually. I think if you look at the amount of testing that goes on, you can actually see that New Zealand is world-leading from a food-safety perspective. I do agree that we need to have a simpler system. That’s why the star rating system will help us.

SUSAN Because, really, we've got to stop people eating all that bad food, and the health issues and the consequences that are going to flow from that.

NIKKI Well, I think that's the point, Susan. This is about choice and more informed consumers, and I think today is a huge milestone. It’s taken 10 years to get here.

SUSAN Yeah, but this is the worried well. These are people who can afford to buy the high-end stuff. You’re not talking about people who are probably struggling and buying the processed, cheaper food.

NIKKI That's a really important point, Susan, and if we go too far in terms of the regulation around labelling, we add cost to the price of food, and that really hurts low-income families. So the balance here is to provide simpler labelling, more informed choice, but also not add a whole lot of costs that will hurt low-income families.

SUSAN Nikki Kaye, thanks for your time this morning.

NIKKI Thank you very much.

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