In a new paper for the American Journal of Public Health, “‘We’re Part of the Solution’: Evolution of the Food and Beverage Industry’s Framing of Obesity Concerns Between 2000-2012,” authors Laura Nixon, Pamela Mejia, Andrew Cheyne, and Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), along with Cara Wilking and Richard Daynard of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, analyzed news statements made by food and beverage industry spokespeople to find out how the industry is shaping public conversation on nutrition-related diseases.
The Berkeley Media Studies Group posted a Q&A with lead author Laura Nixon.
- “Q: In this paper, you analyzed statements from food and beverage industry stakeholders on obesity and diet-related disease. What were some of the main findings? Did anything surprise you?
- A: We were surprised to find such an emphasis on the idea that the food industry was already taking care of the problem. We saw lots of statements like “the beverage industry is doing its part to help,” or “[we’re] engaged in innovative programs that encourage a healthy lifestyle.” In light of our previous research on tobacco industry rhetoric in the news, we expected to see more arguments about consumers’ personal responsibility to not eat unhealthy food, or the idea that people should know that junk food is unhealthy.”
- “Q: How did messages vary across stakeholders?
- A: We found that spokespeople for individual food and beverage companies almost never directly criticized proposed public health policies. Instead, they made statements like ones above and pointed to their voluntary self-regulatory programs, with the implication that the food industry was addressing the problem, and there was no need for government action. On the other hand, trade associations and nonprofits funded by the food industry were much more open in their criticism of proposed government policies. This may be a strategy to protect companies’ reputations and brands, so that individual companies are not tied in the public’s mind to opposition to public health measures.”
- Q: What steps can advocates take to help denormalize industry tactics and hold stakeholders accountable for their role in health?
- A: One possible strategy is to highlight specific actions by individual companies that are harmful, such as irresponsible marketing campaigns, or disingenuous corporate social responsibility initiatives. Pointing out specific companies keeps them from being able to shield their reputations behind neutral industry associations. In addition, it’s important for advocates to be familiar with the research that’s been done on the food industry’s self-regulatory programs, so that they can talk about the limitations of that approach. Advocates can also encourage journalists to investigate food industry spokespeople’s claims about their voluntary programs, rather than taking them at face value.”