Here is an excellent editorial that was published last year in the Public Library of Science – Medicine “Big Food” series, with guest editors Dr. Marion Nestle of New York University and Dr. David Stuckler of Cambridge University.
Titled “The Food Industry Is Ripe for Scrutiny”, it sets the stage thusly:
“The time is ripe for PLoS Medicine to shine a light on Big Food. Foremost, large food and beverage companies now have an undeniably influential presence on the global health stage. Whether it’s food company executives providing expertise at major conferences and high-level UN meetings or major global health funders lecturing on what nongovernmental organizations can learn from Coca-Cola, the perspectives and experiences of Big Food are shaping the field of global health. At the same time that their expertise is elevated in global health debates, food companies are rebranding themselves as “nutrition companies,” offering business acumen and knowledge in food science and distribution, and asserting authority over solutions to problems not just of food production but of malnutrition, obesity, and even poverty. The legitimization of food companies as global health experts is further fueled by the growing number of private-public partnerships with public health organizations, ostensibly designed to foster collaborative action to improve people’s health and wellbeing. And yet food companies’ primary obligation is to drive profit by selling food. Why does the global health community find this acceptable and how do these conflicts of interest play out?”
Indeed. Just how and why did these partnerships become acceptable, and why are so many health organizations and professionals hesitant to discuss the inherent conflicts of interest?
The article continues:
“According to Marion Nestle, these issues have been known and discussed (though not always acted upon) within the nutrition community for decades, which makes the lack of attention in the medical literature even more disappointing. In fact, Nestle’s 2002 book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health is prescient in documenting a laundry list of Big Food misdeeds that are only receiving more widespread attention now: aggressive lobbying of regulators and governments, co-opting domestic and international nutrition experts, deceptive and illegal marketing to children, tactical targeting of minorities and emerging economies, and undisclosed conflicts of interest, among others, resulting in her conclusion 10 years ago that the food industry “plays politics better than anyone”. More recent evidence confirms that Big Food and Big Alcohol are mimicking (and learning from) the tactics of Big Tobacco. In recognition, a bold move by Journal of Public Health Policy discourages studies of individual eating and activity, because, as the editors state, they “have come to believe that research studies concentrating on personal behavior and responsibility as causes of the obesity epidemic do little but offer cover to an industry seeking to downplay its own responsibility.”
Bingo. The food industry has become very skilled at pushing all responsibility on individual consumers, all while fostering a food environment that debilitates personal choice, or at the very least sets up significant obstacles. As Big Food continues to reap the benefits (and positive publicity) of partnerships with health organizations, it simultaneously continues to flood the market with unhealthy products, fight public health policy via front groups, and wash its hands clean of any wrongdoing.