We’re keeping an eye on a series of debate-provoking articles appearing in PLoS Medicine, an international open access medical journal on the topic of ‘Big Food’ – essentially the power of big multinational food and beverage companies.
Several articles commissioned by the magazine are scheduled to appear over the next three weeks. The first, entitled Big Food, Food Systems and Global Health and written by series guest editors David Stuckler of Cambridge University and Marion Nestle of New York University, asks ‘Who rules global food systems?’
“By and large it’s Big Food, by which we refer to multinational food and beverage companies with huge and concentrated market power,” they answer, describing the international public health response so far to Big Food as a “failure to act.”
Another article draws parallels between the public relations efforts of some soda drink companies and those used by tobacco product manufacturers, highlighting several ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR) campaigns that distract from their products’ health risks.
Stuckler and Nestle’s article focuses on the spread of energy-dense, nutrient poor (EDNP) foods around the globe to which several New Zealand experts have responded.
Get the food industry out of policy making
Dr Gabrielle Jenkin of the Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington agrees with the papers and is highlighting key areas where there needs to be urgent action here in New Zealand. This includes the introduction of traffic light labelling on the front of food, getting junk food out of schools, banning junk food marketing to children at least (including sponsorship of sport) and the regulation of food composition (fat, salt and sugar and, where possible, regulate portion sizes).
She also calls to “Get the food industry out of policy making,” adding that health policy is a conflict of interest for much of the food industry.
“We also have the food industry co-opting nutrition experts and commissioning their own research (some of this was presented to the Health Select Committee Inquiry into obesity).”
By framing the issue as ‘unhealthy food’ (EDNP foods), rather than ‘obesity’ you avoid “stigmatising the impact of the obesity frame and its individualising implications. This turns the focus to the real problem … the food industry,” she says.
Develop supportive policy environments
The opposition shown by some food manufacturers to the traffic light-labelling scheme is reminiscent of tobacco manufacturers’ opposition to health warnings and plain packaging, says Professor Janet Hoek of the University of Otago’s Department of Marketing.
“We should develop supportive policy environments that restrain the more rampant marketing activities known to influence people’s choices and, at the same time, introduce measures that help consumers make better food choices. We need first to change the food marketing environment so healthy eating (or unhealthy food avoidance) campaigns can have more effect.
“As Stuckler and Nestle point out in their essay, food manufacturers have a goal of maximising the profit they deliver to their shareholders, so it is unrealistic to expect them to be accountable for public health goals as well as profit goals. The best option is for governments to show leadership, drawn on the available research evidence, restrain the marketing that can be undertaken and provide consumers with information they can actually see and use.”