Multinational food and drink industry undermines public health and need tighter regulation, warn policy experts

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Food and drink industry undermines public health and needs regulation

Related tags Public health Medicine Policy

Wide-scale public regulation and market interventions are the only evidence-based mechanisms to prevent the harms caused by ‘unhealthy commodity industries’ such as the food and beverage industry, argue experts.

Despite the common reliance on industry self-regulation and public-private partnerships to improve public health, there is no evidence to support either their effectiveness or safety, according to new research published in the Lancet​.

The study slams the multinational food and drink industries for using similar market strategies to those employed by the tobacco industry to undermine public health policies – claiming that external regulation and interventions are the only way to bring about change.

However the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) argues that voluntary frameworks can and do work - citing demonstrated to work including the elimination of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as ingredients in foods and a 10% reduction in salt levels in FDF members’ products over the past five years.

“We agree that action is required to tackle the worldwide health burden of obesity and diet-related diseases however we believe that collaboration between a very wide range of organisations can successfully address the multifactorial causes of non-communicable diseases,"​ said Barbara Gallani, director of food safety, science & health at the FDF.

'Unhealthy commodities'

Led by Professor Rob Moodie from the University of Melbourne in Australia the study reports on ‘startling’ evidence from industry documents that reveal how ‘unhealthy commodity’ shape public-health legislation and avoid regulation.

The Lancet paper makes a series of hard-hitting, evidence-based, recommendations for governments, public health professionals, and society on the involvement of industry in the policy and regulation – staring with a warning that such industry players should have no role in the formation of national or international policy for non-communicable diseases.

In view of the present and predicted scale of non-communicable disease epidemics, the only evidence-based mechanisms that can prevent harm caused by unhealthy commodity industries are public regulation and market intervention,”​ said Moodie and his team.

"Regulation, or the threat of regulation, is the only way to change these transnational corporations; therefore the audience for public health is government and not industry,”​ they warn.

“Discussions with unhealthy commodity industries will be helpful only if they are with government and if the goal is for government to use evidence-based approaches,”​ the researchers add, noting that they were unable to find any health benefit to industry involvement in voluntary regulation or public-private partnerships.

Ten recommendations

“To respond to the scale and urgency of the global NCD epidemics, the industrial drivers that underpin them, and the tactics used by the unhealthy commodity industries so far, we have ten recommendations for action,”​ confirm Moodie and his colleagues. 

The experts recommend:

For public health policy making, research, and programmes

• Unhealthy commodity industries should have no role in the formation of national or international policy for non-communicable diseases

• Interactions with the tobacco industry should be restricted and made consistent with recommendations of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

• Discussions with unhealthy commodity industries should be with government only and have a clear goal of the use of evidence-based approaches

• In the absence of robust evidence for the effectiveness of self-regulation or private–public partnership in alcohol, food, and drink industry, rigorous, timely, and independent assessment is needed to show that they can improve health and profit

For public health professionals, institutions, and civil society

• Highly engaged, critical action is needed to galvanise an evidence-based constituency for change to implement effective and low-cost policies, to place direct pressure on industry to change, and to raise public awareness of the unhealthy effects of these industries

• Funding and other support for research, education, and programmes should not be accepted from the tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drinks industries or their affiliates and associates

For governments and international intergovernmental agencies

• Evidence-based approaches such as legislation, regulation, taxation, pricing, ban, and restriction of advertising and sponsorship should be introduced to reduce death and disability from non-communicable diseases

For governments, foundations, and other funding agencies

• All approaches in the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases—ie, self-regulation, public–private partnerships, legislation, pricing, and other regulatory measures—should be independently and objectively monitored

• Funding of policy development research into modes of regulation and market interventions should be accelerated and prioritised

• A new scientific discipline that investigates industrial diseases and the transnational corporations that drive them, should be developed

Source: Lancet
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)62089-3
“Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries”
Authors: Rob Moodie, David Stuckler, Carlos Monteiro, Nick Sheron, et al

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