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Food for Profit: What Role for Corporations to Slim Down the World?

March 21, 2013

Slimming down the world is about having people decreasing their consumption of ultra-processed food (of which a good indicator is packaged food); it follows that food companies which produce and market this kind of food have a big role to play. This was the conclusion of a special report on obesity on The Economist which recognized that the bottom line of transnational food corporations is to make a profit and that the sale of ultra-processed food is highly profitable. Yet, it argued that food companies do not want to be vilified for helping to make people obese: this is a powerful driver which can convince food companies to make their food healthier.  From this perspective food companies are therefore the be enlisted in a collaboration with public health authorities to reduce the amount of ultra-processed food consumed around the world:in other words slimming down the world is about self-regulation and collaboration with food companies and not coercive actions.

Last week The Lancet published an article which looks at the best ways to prevent the harmful effects of ultra-processed food within the framework of reducing the risk factors of non-communicable diseases. Its conclusions are in sharp contrast with those of The Economist.

Look At Tobacco. It is now uncontroversial that the tobacco industry cannot be the primary force to drive down tobacco consumption; quite the opposite it has utilized a panoply of strategies to restrain government’s action and regulation and to defend their bottom line i.e. profit from tobacco’s sales. If one is asking what role food companies should play to make people less fat, one should just look at the history of tobacco industry, The Lancet argues. The tobacco industry had a precise script to defend itself: it funds research whose findings are patently biased in favor of its position; it lobbies politicians and public officials to oppose public regulations; it emphasizes that consuming tobacco is an individual responsibility and raise arguments against the so-called nanny states; it makes self-regulatory pledges and it introduces “safer” products. This script is being replayed today by food companies all over the world.

Making Food Healthy? (source

Solemn (Empty) Promises and Product Reformulation. The use of self-regulatory pledges is particularly important because it is often heralded as the prove that food companies do care about obesity. For example, the promises made by the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), including companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé, to make healthier products, advertise food responsibly and promote exercise is presented by The Economist as evidence that “food companies are keen to show that they take the obesity problem seriously”. However the history of the tobacco’s industry points to the fact that such interpretation might in fact be misleading. According to the authors there is no evidence  that pledges are followed by action and therefore such promise might just be empty and only instrumental in buying food companies more time. The promise to promote exercise can be interpreted on the other hand as a containment strategy as it shifts the focus from the main problem (consumption of junk food) to less decisive strategies (such as exercise).

The strategy most adopted by food companies to prove their self-regulatory force is the announcement of plans to improve nutrition.  As The Economist points out, a lot of food companies are committing themselves to either cut out bad ingredients or add good ones or introduce new products. Coca-Cola has a plan, Kraft does too and for Nestlé this is the company’s core business strategy. Everybody faces a problem however: how one defines healthy and junky food, point being that the majority of ultra-processed food has some nutritional values and therefore cannot be exclusively labeled as junk food. This argument stands however on a shaky ground. First, the confusion over how to define junky food is not natural but rather the product of food companies which underlines the importance to give the choice to consumer to consume also a deep-fried Oreo, a cannonball of fat and sugar. From a public health perspective however one should rather avoid any ultra-processed packaged food such as snacks, chilled processed food, canned food and ready-to-eat meals. Second, the promotion of “safer” products has been utilized by tobacco companies too with their aggressive marketing of low-nicotine cigarettes. In that instance such strategy worked as a public relation devices rather than harm reduction as consumers reverted to smoke more of the low-nicotine cigarettes to reach the level of nicotine intake they were used to. Third, cutting out bad ingredients might work in saturated markets (i.e. more than 60% of total energy intake derives from ultra-processed food) such as those in high-income countries: in those context consumers might switch to the new reformulated product without increasing the consumption of ultra-processed products. In low and middle-income countries however this is not the case: if food companies reformulate and promote some of their unhealthy products as healthy (e.g. artificially sweetened but still nutrient devoid soft drinks) the overall consumption of ultra-processed food might jump up if consumers switch from fresh food to packged food.

Profit First: Look At Low and Middle-Income Countries. The lesson from the past 50 years is that the tobacco industry “cannot be trusted to put the public’s interest above their profits no matter what they say”. Skeptics argue that is the case too for food companies. If this holds then governments in low and middle-income countries have one big reason to worry: sale of packaged food has stalled in the high-income countries due to market saturation and economic stagnation. On the other hand, volume consumption per person for packaged food  and soft drinks are set to increase by 1.9% and 5.2% respectively in low and middle-income countries in the next few years. Trade agreements and market deregulations (by restricting governments’ ability to limit consumption through taxation) will increase such penetration.

All in all, the debate about the role of transnational food companies to slim down the world is far from being settled. The reason is that both positions departs from fundamentally opposite views: one gives absolute priority to the freedom of the individuals, the other put the health of the population at large first even if this comes at the expenses of some individuals’ freedom (banning deep fried Oreo would limit the freedom to choose of some individuals who would not become obese by eating deep-fried Oreo; yet this would benefit the population at large).  The proposals which stem from both side (self-regulation and public-private partnerships vs. regulation and market intervention) reflects these departing points and therefore are unlikely to converge anytime soon.

One Comment leave one →
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