Profits vs. Health: Can the food industry be a friend to public health?

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November 12, 2012 by Olivia Dong

When thinking about whether or not the food industry can be a friend to public health, I thought of a scene in a recent episode of Parks and Recreation that nicely sums up some of the contrasting priorities between these two sectors that hinders the formation of a synergistic partnership. (click here for link to video)

There are many fundamental differences between the food industry and public health that makes it challenging to form a partnership that would be able to address public health nutrition challenges. The food industry exists as a profit-seeking entity while the public health sector exists to promote health—two very different goals that result in clashing views about food.  

Many food companies produce products that are supposedly desired by the consumer as evidenced by sales, while public health aims to influence consumers’ food choices towards healthier ones. Many food companies argue it’s unethical to strip consumers’ ability to make food choices freely and that intervening and telling them what they should be eating is overstepping their bounds. On the other hand, advocating for the general health of the population is imperative, especially since 35.7% of the adult population is obese (1). Food products that are readily available in the environment play a huge role in shaping the health of the population and making it easier to buy healthier foods is one of many strategies in which obesity and other nutrition-related conditions can be addressed. 

As influential as food industries could be in solving some of the food related factors that are contributing to the obesigenic environments, there isn’t enough motivation to get them on board and aligned with the goals that drive the public health sector. For one, having a healthier population doesn’t translate into profits for these companies. Also, given the limitations of research and its ability to show cause-and-effect, it’s extremely difficult to show a particular food item is responsible for a nutrition-related disease or condition. This limitation keeps individual food companies free of accountability since science is not able to measure the true effect one particular food item has on health given all the decisions a person makes in a day. So why should the food industry feel compelled to be an ally to public health?

Despite these fundamental differences, there is the potential for a synergistic partnership to form between the food industry and public health. Although each sector’s goals won’t be reached 100%, a compromise that will allow each entity to better achieve their goals is much better than not reaching them at all. When relationships form between these two contrasting entities, it’s important for the public to realize that the public’s interest will not come first. This point was made in the Hawkes and Buse article and they argued that when entering a partnership, each party involved has to gain equally for them to stay motivated and continue to be invested in the partnership (2). Also, public health can sway food industries to change food products by providing the necessary evidence to ensure their profit goals will not be compromised if healthier food item are offered. Evidence that show consumers want food companies to provide healthy foods is important to motivate changes. For instance, one survey showed the most important initiative a food company could offer are healthy foods that taste great, and 90% of respondents reported it’s important for food producers to have specific initiatives focused on health, wellness and nutrition for people consuming their products (3). By providing evidence that are health focused and are backed by consumer desires, the public health sector has a better chance of getting food companies to help address the public health nutrition issues our society faces.  

An example of an existing public-private partnership is Partnership for a Healthier America. They formed to combat the childhood obesity epidemic.    

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Resources: 

(1)  “Adult Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html&gt;.

(2)  Hawkes, C. Kent Buse, K Public health sector and food industry interaction: it’s time to clarify the term ‘partnership’ and be honest about underlying interests. Eur J Public Health (2011) 21 (4):400-401.

(3)    “Food Politics.” Â» The Latest Survey: Consumers Want Healthy Foods! N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.foodpolitics.com/2010/05/the-latest-survey-consumers-want-healthy-foods/&gt;.

 

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2 thoughts on “Profits vs. Health: Can the food industry be a friend to public health?

  1. Sarah S. says:

    First of all, ten points for using a Parks and Rec video clip in your blog! (For anyone else reading this, the ten points comment is an inside joke…)

    I definitely agree with everything you wrote. We can’t expect the food industry to act solely in the best interest of the public (and should probably be skeptical if they claim that is their intention) since profit is industry’s end goal. I also agree that we would be taking a step in the right direction if the public health sector and industry could form synergistic partnerships that allow them both to move toward reaching their respective end points, and wrote the same in my blog.

    However, I’ve been trying to think about how this could happen without causing many people to doubt the validity of those efforts. It seems that most synergistic partnerships are going to require funding of some sort, and that the food industry would usually be seen as the partner with the most money in this scenario. But, if industry money is behind research/action efforts, many people will discount any advances that result. For example, CSPI initiated the Integrity in Science Project to publicize conflicts of interests and influence of industry in public-health matters (link: https://www.cspinet.org/integrity/about.html). Somewhere, they make the statement that industry funding doesn’t necessarily mean that the results are invalid, but I doubt that the general public will read the fine print. So, I think we walk a fine line between trying to encourage joint participation between sectors in improving public health while needing to remain at a far enough distance to avoid the appearance of deception or corruption. We are definitely between a rock and a hard place.

  2. jsohl says:

    I have to agree with Sarah…I love the Parks & Rec reference!
    I think you make some really good points, Oivia. There is absolutely no reason for the food industry to begin to make healthier products if there no financial gain. After all, the food industry is an industry. Its purpose is profit. Though some individuals that work in the food industry may have public health in mind and want to make ethical decisions based on the best interest of the public, changes that don’t result in net profit do not make sense (or cents…I couldn’t resist) in terms of making progress towards a company’s #1 goal. So, yes, a true partnership with the public health sector and food industry must be formed wherein each side truly benefits in order to make any sustainable progress. Some progress has been made in terms of marketing and including some healthier options such as apple slices in fast food kids meals, but a lot of controversy surrounds other topics such as food reformulation. (http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/what_we_do.aspx?id=107, https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/RapidReview_FoodReformulation.pdf)
    Taking the small step of creating healthier “junk foods” can backfire when companies receive heat from public health groups and dissatisfied consumers. Public health groups argue that the company doesn’t really have consumer health in mind; they are just targeting people who are looking for a “guilt-free” cookie. I can’t imagine that the cookie company that came out with the “healthy” chocolate chip cookies we tried in our other public health class is celebrating their decision to start producing them. I’d be shocked if I found out that there are a significant number of repeat customers! My prediction is that these cookies won’t stand the test of time, and soon the executive who gave their production the go ahead will be saying, “Who Nu?”

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