If we’re going to take the world’s growing obesity problem seriously and actually do something about it, governments and public-health officials need to regulate, not collaborate, with Big Food, argues a leading obesity expert in a blistering commentary this month in the journal PLoS Medicine.
“Many political bodies, foundations, and scientists believe that working collaboratively with the food industry is the path for change,” writes Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “The assumption is that this industry is somehow different than others, and that because people must eat, the industry is there to stay, and like it or not, working with them is the only solution.”
But this thinking is “a trap,” he says.
When the history of the world’s attempt to address obesity is written, the greatest failure may be collaboration with and appeasement of the food industry. I expect history will look back with dismay on the celebration of baby steps industry takes (such as public-private partnerships with health organizations, ‘healthy eating’ campaigns, and corporate social responsibility initiatives) while it fights viciously against meaningful change (such as limits on marketing, taxes on products such as sugared beverages, and regulation of nutritional labeling).
Strong words. But they get stronger:
The food industry has had plenty of time to prove itself trustworthy. It has been in high gear, making promises to behave better, but their minor progress creates an impression of change while larger attempts to subvert the agenda carry on. Witness the massive resistance against soda taxes in the United States and the wholesale attack of marketing standards proposed by the Interagency Working Group. Worst perhaps is the issue of marketing food to children. The industry launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative designed to “… shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” Objective reports, however, have shown a tidal wave of marketing of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods to children, and if any change is occurring, marketing is on the increase.
Brownell points out that the food industry, like all industries, “must defend its core practices against all threats, produce short-term earnings, and in so doing, sell more food. If it distorts science, creates front groups to do its bidding, compromises scientists, professional organizations, and community groups with contributions, block needed public health policies in the service of their goals, or engages in other tactics in ‘the corporate playbook,’ this is what it takes to protect business as usual.”
“We need food,” he concludes, “but the obesity crisis is made worse by the way industry formulates and markets its products. The food industry, like other industries, must be regulated to prevent excesses and to protect the public good. Left to regulate itself, industry has the opportunity, if not the mandate from shareholders, to sell more products irrespective of their impact on consumers. Government, foundations, and other powerful institutions should be working for regulation, not collaboration.”