Writing an editorial as part of PLoS Medicine’s series on ‘big food’, Professor Kelly Brownell of Yale University in the USA warns that the idea that collaborative and voluntary efforts are the only solution is a trap.
"The obesity crisis is made worse by the way industry formulates and markets its products and so must be regulated to prevent excesses and to protect the public good," says Brownell.
He argues that left to regulate itself, the food industry has the opportunity, if not the mandate from shareholders, to sell more products irrespective of their impact on consumers. Therefore governments, foundations, and other powerful institutions should be working for regulation, not collaboration, he warns.
“Many political bodies, foundations, and scientists believe that working collaboratively with the food industry is the path for change,” notes the Yale Professor, who is based at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
“The assumption is that this industry is somehow different than others, and that because people must eat, the industry is here to stay, and like it or not, working with them is the only solution.”
“Based on my 30 years of experience in the public health and policy sectors, I believe this position is a trap.”
Is industry action enough?
The obesity epidemic has already received strong attention from industry, with Brownell conceding that food companies “are doing things".
“The question is whether these things are meaningful or are the predictable behaviour of an industry under threat and are designed to stop rather than support public health efforts.”
“The food industry has had plenty of time to prove itself trustworthy,” he claims. “It has been in high gear, making promises to behave better, but minor progress creates an impression of change while larger attempts to subvert the agenda carry on.”
He warns that the bottom line is that the food industry must defend its core practices against all threats in order to produce short-term earnings and sell more products.
Brownell argues that the ‘arresting reality’ is that companies must sell less food if the population is to lose weight.
“This pits the fundamental purpose of the food industry against public health goals,” he says.
The Yale expert warns that several tactics need to be employed in order to succeed in the battle against obesity. While ‘respectful dialogue’ with industry is desirable, and can lead to voluntary changes “that inch us forward”, Brownell argues there must be recognition that such tactics will bring only small victories.
“To take the obesity problem seriously will require courage, leaders who will not back down in the face of harsh industry tactics, and regulation with purpose.”
Source: PLoS Medicine
Volume 9, Issue 7, e1001254, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001254
“Thinking Forward: The Quicksand of Appeasing the Food Industry”
Author: K. Brownell