Proceed with Caution: Working with the Food Industry

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November 12, 2012 by waboyd

In the US, we are constantly bombarded with delicious, affordable food options. Although some of these options may be healthy, many inexpensive convenience foods are highly processed and loaded with high levels of fat, sugar, or salt and may be linked to health epidemics such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Even if we want to make healthier choices, deciphering all the messages on the nutritional value of food can be overwhelming for nutrition experts let alone many with limited nutrition knowledge. Often, the corporations who stand to profit from selling food products are presenting advertisements under the guise of offering nutrition information. Considering that their main objective is to realize profits, I’m very skeptical that the food industry can be trusted to act in the best interest of our health.

During a debate at The Obesity Society’s 2011 annual meeting, countless examples were provided of food industry partnerships with non-profit organizations to benefit public health issues including cancer and hunger. However, in all cases, the food companies also benefitted by either marketing to potential new customers (usually children) or by requiring purchase of their products for a portion to be donated to a specific cause. I think that many employees of food industry do want to partner with public health organizations to help fight public health epidemics. However, despite the good intentions of these employees, in the end, the corporation’s goal is still to sell as many of their products to as many people as possible.

To learn more on this topic, I searched PubMed for scientific articles focusing on the food industry, but I couldn’t find many until I came across a series of papers published by PLoS Medicine. According to an editorial by the PLoS Medicine editors (including guest editor Marion Nestle, the author of Food Politics), less than 10 peer-reviewed manuscripts have been published in medical journals on the topic of the role of the food industry in health over the past 10 years1. This paucity of information along with the growing epidemic of obesity around the globe led the editors to invite discussion on “Big Food, which (they) define as the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power”. According to one of the articles in this series focusing on the sugar sweetened beverage industry, this industry tends to stress individual consumer’s responsibility for consumption of their products over the responsibility of the industry to provide healthier products2. Once again, we are reminded that the bottom line of corporations is to sell their products.

So, if public health organizations do decide to partner with food industry, they should enter these partnerships with full awareness of the food industry’s goal of making profits and a transparent agreement describing exactly how each partner stands to benefit. Otherwise, to avoid future problems with the food industry inappropriately influencing nutrition policies, maybe public health organizations should avoid these partnerships under certain circumstances. For example, I wonder if the World Health Organization should really accept funding and participation on a steering board from corporations, including the food industry giants Coca Cola and Nestle; especially when these corporations have so much to gain from increasing their presence in global markets3.

References

  1. The PLoS Medicine Editors (2012) PLoS Medicine Series on Big Food: The Food Industry Is Ripe for Scrutiny. PLoS Med 9(6): e1001246.
  2. Dorfman L, Cheyne A, Friedman LC, Wadud A, Gottlieb M (2012) Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare? PLoS Med 9(6): e1001241.
  3. Stuckler D, Nestle M (2012) Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health. PLoS Med 9(6): e1001242. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242.
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2 thoughts on “Proceed with Caution: Working with the Food Industry

  1. Esther says:

    While the #1 goal of food companies may be improving their own bottom line, I don’t know that it’s just a question of employees wanting do good vs the whole corporation being greedy and unprincipled. Yes, companies may try to spin or manipulate the contributions they make to public health in a way that will benefit them financially. So of course public health practitioners will want to be cautious about the alliances they make and check carefully for strings attached. But at the same time, that’s not a reason to reject any good they are doing—just to be sure public health agencies and specialists aren’t being used as an advertising tool. Still, I think public health practitioners must work with food companies, both to ensure that they are aware of the issues and so that they can see the reasons (financial as well as ethical) for moving their products in a healthier direction. Overall, I’m more in favor of working behind-the-scenes with companies and staying out of publicity for the very reason that it may become just more advertising. But on the other hand, it’s only fair to give recognition when companies make commitments to improve the nutritional quality of their foods—we just need to be clear it’s the commitment to public health we’re supporting!

  2. kalnajja says:

    Both Wendy and Ester make great points here. I agree that we both need “to enter these partnerships with full awareness of the food industry’s goal of making profits” and “work with food companies to improve the nutritional quality of their foods.” And, I think it is possible.

    Not every company has a pristine reputation, just like individual people or countries, most companies have wronged someone or something at some point. But, I refuse to give up hope that they can’t change. It could be a change in how they treat their employees (contributing to public health efforts), a decrease in their environmental impact (contributing to public health efforts) or a change in their less than stealer food products to support health (contributing to public health efforts).

    For example, the Walt Disney Company started running their trains on bio diesel made with the cooking oil from the resort’s hotels and instituted a green standard for all employees and cast members. McDonald’s pledged to reduce sugars, saturated fats and calories through “varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations” by 2020. These companies are going to fight for market share whether we work with them or not. Might as well…

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