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It’s time to stop appeasing the food industry, obesity expert says

Kelly Brownell points out that the food industry must defend its core practices against all threats, produce short-term earnings, and in so doing, sell more food.

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.

Kelly D. Brownell
Kelly D. Brownell

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.”

Brownell’s commentary is part of a “Big Food” series that is running this month in PloS Medicine. You can read his article and all the others in the series in full on the journal’s website.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/10/2012 - 10:11 am.


    The food industry is a very low profit margin business. They follow consumer demand like no other market sector. As proof, I submit WalMart’s new “Organic Food” section.

    When people start demanding higher quality food, and back it up by showing they are willing to pay what that costs, artificial additives will go away.

  2. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 07/10/2012 - 10:12 am.

    The answer is neither collaboration nor regulation.

    It is making sound choices. The only route to reducing obesity and curing the multitude of social ills that our “food” system causes is more thoughtful people and, as needed, financial support for those who need assistance to afford healthy food (though simple, healthy food can be less expensive than empty, toxic quasi-food). Almost 100% of what is on offer in a supermarket is poison masquerading as food. Even a food conglomerate with the best of intentions (if we theorize such a thing) cannot provide healthy food, due to the preservatives needed to ship food great distances and inventory it in large quantities. We must eat simply and close to home. If people could make good choices, there would be a massive movement of capital from destructive to beneficial economic activity surrounding food production, transportation and health.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/10/2012 - 10:31 am.

    I won’t hold my breath

    As the unfolding LIBOR scandal illustrates in graphic fashion – and as we ought to have learned from our own experiences of the past century and more – there’s no reason to trust big corporations, or to believe, even for a moment, that corporations have “the public good” at the heart of their operations. “Good corporate citizens” remain so only as long as the benefits of a positive public image outweigh whatever fiscal costs there might be to maintaining that positive image – that there’s no significant impact on the corporate bottom line to do so. When earnings begin to be significantly affected by the costs of voluntary “corporate citizenship,” shareholders begin to object (not surprisingly), and the “corporate citizenship” typically vanishes like a puff of smoke.

    Nothing I’ve seen in print, other media, or simply ordinary life, suggests to me that food companies – and corporate agriculture is what produces most of what’s on supermarket shelves and in people’s homes, no matter how many farmer’s markets we might attend – are substantially different from banking conglomerates, defense contractors, big pharma, and other multi-faceted and multinational corporate entities. They’re self-serving to the extreme, and have understandably spent many millions of dollars in-house and at contract advertising agencies to promote their image to the general public as being public-spirited and genuinely interested in public health.

    I wouldn’t argue that corporations are necessarily always, or automatically, hostile to those public benefits, but public benefit is secondary – very, very secondary – to making a profit. When making a profit becomes a choice, rather than a given, it’s a rare corporation, indeed, and likely a short-lived one, that will choose the public good over the bottom line. Corporations insist that they ought to be self-regulating, and decades – now centuries – of experience with corporate self-regulation conclusively shows, time after time after time, that it’s worthless. The food industry, at least as much as other industries less central to human existence in this society, ought to have not just regulation, but strong regulation, with real penalties for companies and executives who flout or break the rules.

  4. Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 07/10/2012 - 10:54 am.

    Reforming S.N.A.P. “Food Stamps”

    If we want to talk about government subsidizing obesity, one only needs to look at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as “food stamps”. While in college, I had an EBT card for 6 months to help pay the food bills, and I was astonished at what you can buy with it (basically everything but hot prepared food). I see kids at the corner store using their parents EBT cards to buy pop, chips, ice cream…you name it, you can get it. There are so many abuses and misuses with this program, it’s no wonder the budget for it has exploded recently. Republicans just want to kill the program and Democrats don’t seem interested in any serious attempt at reform. Meanwhile, I suspect the junk-food industry lobbies HARD to both parties against making any cuts. Here’s my simple solution, which would save a ton of money and hopefully help with the obesity issue. Stop allowing people using SNAP to buy drinks. No more liquids, period. There is an alternative program (WIC: Women, Infants & Children) to maintain access to dairy, etc for those at-risk groups. But there is no reason that the SNAP program should be misused to the tune of billions of dollars to buy sugary soda and sports drinks. I could go into the additional fraud and abuse of people selling their EBT cards for cash, but that would get us a little off-topic.

  5. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 07/10/2012 - 12:24 pm.

    Um, healthy foods don’t even have advertisements

    I don’t think it’s a major leap in logic to say that most foods that are truly health — that is, nutrient dense — do not get advertised. Sometimes you get the pork council or the egg council advertising, but as a general rule, if a food has a marketing budget, avoid it.

    • Submitted by Virginia Martin on 07/10/2012 - 03:11 pm.

      marketing budget

      Isn’t only processed foods that have marketing budgets? At least the most heavily advertised foods seem to be all junk food.
      I think people can buy good food and not pay more by sensible buying practices. Many cities and towns have farmers’ markets. Around here, there are several.
      But in some neighborhoods, there are food deserts. The supermarket in my neighborhood is about 6-7 blocks away, but my co-op is only a block from me and that’s where I buy virtually all my food. I think many people are beginning to understand that, because I see more and more neighborhood people every time I go in. The co-op also hires neighborhood people when it can.
      A big church in my neighborhood has a big garden to grow food, which they then get to the poor. I’m sure there are other churches and groups that do this.
      Farmers’ markets are CHEAP! It’s hard to buy for a one-person household, but I can share it and I often ask if I can just buy a portion of what’s offered in a bunch.
      Find a farmers’ market; they are great, and they’re fun and attractive and welcoming. Mine has music most mornings.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/10/2012 - 12:27 pm.

    It’s one thing

    to ensure that our foods are free from contamination, another to dictate what it is we eat, regardless of who is paying for it.

    One of the fascinating aspects of this debate, including the regulation of what can and cannot be purchased with government funds, is the way in which it unites disparate elements in our society. Many of those who rail against government intervention in our personal lives are more than happy to dictate what it is we eat, if that is paid for in whole or in part by government funds. As we can see here, they may find themselves aligned with those who would open a new frontier of government control, directly and indirectly, whether in the form of taxes intended to discourage the consumption of some foods or more direct controls over the ingredients used.

    There’s a reason that carbonated beverages have an entire aisle to themselves in many markets – the people want them. It doesn’t take a degree in science to know that drinking a 12 pack a day (1800 calories, more or less) is foolish. We know what we’re doing when we pile them in our carts.

    Yes, you can make it more expensive and that may decrease consumption of that item. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think those calories can’t or won’t be found in another beverage (virtually any type of juice, for example) or on another shelf.

    Off on a tangent on EBT cards: I’ve been approached at my local warehouse grocer 3 times in the past few months by people looking to sell me their benefits. It’s a difficult problem to address either at the government’s or the retailer’s end. Perhaps what we need to do is create some risk for those looking to sell their benefits by placing a few police under cover on occasion and making some very public arrests.

    Regulating what foods can and can’t be purchased using SNAPS is simply arrogant, in my view. Among other things, it assumes that recipients can’t make informed choices. If, for example, I choose to eat a 1/4 pound of steak or a lean fish rather than 1/2 pound of 70% “lean” ground beef, which is the healthier choice? Must I only drink milk or may I drink orange juice? Must the orange juice be fortified with calcium?

    • Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 07/10/2012 - 02:39 pm.

      I agree, it would be nearly impossible to regulate the types of foods one can buy with SNAP. That’s why I kept my reform proposal simple, no liquids/beverages. Orange juice and milk, while tasty and semi-healthy, are not necessities. Even for the very poor, SNAP is not intended to constitute one’s entire monthly food consumption budget. Arrogant is a strong word, paternalistic…maybe. I’m proposing to reform the program in order to save it and make the dollars go further, not to mention the savings on healthcare when people wind up with diabetes from drinking all that free pop. I’d like to think my solution is preferable to the Ryan budget plan to just cut the budget in half, leaving some families without any food.

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