Small step for fast food giants

The decision by fast-food chain Burger King to display energy labels on menu boards on its restaurants throughout New Zealand has been heralded by dieticians as a step in the right direction - although they say much more can be done.

In reality, the move is only a small step towards addressing problems of obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes. But it is a significant one for a fast food chain to make, given the lucrative and highly competitive marketplace in which it operates.

The energy labels will display the total kilojoules per product and are designed, according to Burger King's chief executive John Hunter, to help customers make informed choices.

It seems other fast food chains do not intend to do the same, saying they already have nutritional information on their websites - and many say they have developed healthier options for their customers.

Cynics and critics would say most customers are unlikely to believe many consumers would consult their websites for nutritional guidance before going to a fast food outlet to buy a burger or the like. And there will be those who believe the menu board listings will have little effect either.

While a sector of the community undoubtedly desires accountability from producers, traceability of products, is more likely to choose market-grown or organic produce, and is more likely to read labels and further research nutritional information, the majority of consumers going into a fast food outlet are not going there for a healthy low-fat, balanced, nutritional meal and to read and heed nutritional product information.

For that reason, it would be easy to view the move cynically, along with the healthy options claims and the fast food chains' own mantra of personal choice.

That said, it is certainly more transparent to have the nutritional information available at at the point of sale, and more likely customers will be persuaded to make a genuine healthier ''choice'' because of it. However, any food labelling is meaningful only in context.

Without comparable ''recommended daily intake'' or similar information, they are effectively meaningless for on-the-spot guidance.

But providing consumers with more power at their fingertips is important and the reasoning behind the Government's planned ''health star rating'' scheme for packaged food products, which will be voluntary to begin with, at least, although it could be made mandatory.

Personal choice, responsibility and moderation are all encouraged by this newspaper. But the reality is the mantras seem increasingly hard to follow in a society which values instant gratification, where we are saturated with images of fast food and sugary drinks from a variety of mediums, where the traditional ''takeaway'' has become an everyday occurrence rather than a weekly treat, where homegrown produce, home-cooked meals, and a focus on a nutrition are a thing of the past in many homes.

Fundamental skills are being lost, and with them meaningful control of our health and nutrition. And it is a sad reflection on our society that without the skills to grow and cook their own food, many people turn to easier, and often cheaper, unhealthy options.

Our spiralling obesity rate, which is among the worst in the developed world (the latest health statistics show two-thirds of New Zealand adults and almost a third of New Zealand children are obese or overweight), means we must all do something towards addressing the problems - at individual, industry and government levels.

Quite simply, the social and financial costs to society are simply to great to ignore.

And another thing

The biggest 1080 drop in this country's history - part of a nation-wide $23 million programme - began in Fiordland's Iris Burn Valley yesterday.

About 600,000ha of land across the country has been earmarked for 1080 drops as part of the Department of Conservation's ''Battle for Birds'' programme, aimed at protecting endangered native birds. The poison is, of course, hugely controversial.

But at the risk of repeating ourselves, 1080 is the most effective and least environmentally corrosive of all the weapons at the disposal of those to whom we entrust the safeguarding of our wildlife.

Alternatives to 1080 should certainly be sought, but for now the message is clear: use it or risk losing our natural and native heritage forever.


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