In this excellent and succinct Public Library of Science Medicine article titled “Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health”, Dr. David Stuckler (Senior Research Leader in Sociology, Oxford University, and Research Fellow, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and Dr. Marion Nestle (Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University) comment on the public health field’s failure to act in response to Big Food’s tactics.
“Public health professionals have been slow to respond to such nutritional threats in developed countries and even slower still in developing countries. Thanks to insights from tobacco company documents, we have learned a great deal about how this industry sought to avoid or flout public health interventions that might threaten their profits. We now have considerable evidence that food and beverage companies use similar tactics to undermine public health responses such as taxation and regulation, an unsurprising observation given the flows of people, funds, and activities between Big Tobacco and Big Food. Yet the public health response to Big Food has been minimal.”
When it comes to engaging with Big Food, the authors have this to say about the notion of “working with” the very companies that make huge profits by churning out highly processed and minimally nutritious products (this, as you may know, is the argument that Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics always trots out when challenged on their partnerships with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills, McDonald’s, et al):
“First, we find no evidence for an alignment of public health interest in curbing obesity with that of the food and beverage industry. Any partnership must create profit for the industry, which has a legal mandate to maximize wealth for shareholders. We also see no obvious, established, or legitimate mechanism through which public health professionals might increase Big Food’s profits.The only ways the industry could preserve profit is either to undermine public health attempts to tax and regulate or to get people to eat more healthy food while continuing to eat profitable unhealthy foods. Neither is desirable from a nutritional standpoint.”
We agree. It is our viewpoint that these sorts of partnerships only serve to give Big Food free positive press that allows it to present itself as a (faux) concerned player that wants to be “part of the solution”.
Drs. Nestle and Stuckler wisely ask:
“It took five decades after the initial studies linking tobacco and cancer for effective public health policies to be put in place, with enormous cost to human health. Must we wait five decades to respond to the similar effects of Big Food?”
In our opinion, one of the best ways to prevent such a lag is for health organizations to stop serving as enablers that continually let Big Food off the hook.