Is the food industry ripe for scrutiny?

By Amanda Johnson 20/06/2012

The journal PLoS Medicine (Public Library of Science Medicine) has today (June 20) launched a special series of articles highlighting the influence and impact of the food industry.

Seven articles, published over the next three weeks, will examine the activities and influence of ‘Big Food’ (defined as the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power) in the health arena. The series aims to stimulate debate by examining the activities and influence of the food industry in global health.

The series kicks off with an editorial suggesting that the food industry is ripe for scrutiny. It is suggested that ‘Big Food’ is shaping the field of global health and that this is a concern since food companies’ primary obligation is to drive profit by selling food.

Then there is an essay on ‘Big Food’, food systems and global health by David Stuckler and Marion Nestle. They outline three possible ways to view the debate: firstly, voluntary self-regulation with no further engagement by the public health community; secondly, developing partnerships between public health advocates and industry, in order to make positive changes from within;  the third ‘critical view’ approach recognises the conflicts of interest between corporations that profit from unhealthy food and public health.

The authors support the critical view since they have found no evidence for health gains through partnerships. They suggest that to promote health, the food industry would need to make and market healthier foods so as to shift consumption away from highly processed, unhealthy foods. Yet such foods are inherently less profitable. They finish by urging public health professionals to place as high a priority on nutrition as they do on HIV, infectious diseases and other disease threats. They also suggest supporting initiatives that restrict marketing to children, offer better nutrition standards for school meals and introducing taxes on sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs).

The final paper released today, by Lori Dorfman and colleagues, compares the soda and tobacco industries in terms of corporate and social responsibility. In summary, the authors state that because SSBs are implicated in the global obesity crisis, major soda companies have recently employed elaborate, expensive, multi-national corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns. Such campaigns, they argue, are a way to focus responsibility on consumers rather than on the corporation and are a way to bolster the popularity of their products. They suggest that this is also a way of preventing regulation. It is recommended that public health advocates need to counter industry CSRs with strong de-normalization campaigns to educate the public and policy makers about the social ills caused by SSBs.

The Science Media Centre today published a Science Alert with the views of senior academics and researchers who give a New Zealand perspective on this issue, and there has already been some media interest in this topic.

I’m delighted to see this series of papers published as I think the time is right for close scrutiny of the food industry. While it is important not to polarise the debate and place sole blame for obesity and other food-related problems on the food industry, there are areas that need to be considered — particularly the marketing of inappropriate foods to children (especially pre-schoolers), and the provision of healthy foods in the school setting. It may be that some of these areas do require some regulation.

In the meantime, let’s not forget that obesity is a complex problem not caused by a single factor. Tackling the issue in New Zealand requires a multi-faceted approach, including the promotion of good nutrition and regular physical activity across all sectors of society.