Profits over people. These words may come to mind following a recently released study that sought to understand just how much influence the food industry has over public health policy.
Following interviews with current and former public health advocates, academics, policy makers and politicians, researchers from Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. have concluded lobbying, funding and other influential tactics are having serious political sway – resulting in weakened policy response when addressing diet-related disease among the population. 1
“The junk food industry has well-oiled and well-funded machinery to block policies which might threaten their profits,” says study author Professor Boyd Swinburn.
As a result, business interest is favoured over the health of the people, with efforts to prevent and control diet-related illness at a governmental level being thwarted.
Why is this something we should be concerned with?
The study identified many tactics employed by the food industry.
Choosing the evidence
Industry ‘cherry-picked’ certain studies and influenced health policy to suit them, even if they were not based on sound evidence.
Making some policy implementation difficult
Implementation of policy around junk food advertising to children and healthy food services for government agencies and schools were curtailed, despite being “…universally recommended by public health experts, agreed to by countries in World Health Organisation resolutions and [having] majority public support,” says Professor Swinburn.
Re-framing the relationship between health and food
Diet-related illness and obesity are often multifactorial and complex, with genetic and other environmental factors at play. Yet food industry has a history of downplaying links between food choice and health, such as framing obesity as a personal responsibility or making fat a dietary villain.
Of course, we are all responsible for managing our own health, but how do we educate ourselves to make good, health-supportive decisions under the influence of very clever marketing and product placement,2 without clear labelling on packaging, and when readily available and affordable food is lacking in quality, yet highly palatable?
Engineering food so we want more
High sugar processed foods are extremely palatable. And too much sweet stuff may lead to addictive or habituated eating, producing cravings or desires.
This poorer quality food is often laden with added sugar, refined grains and the type of fats that aren’t very good for us, as well as preservatives and artificial ingredients, all of which can be contributing to a poorer state of health – and quality of life – in the short and long term.
Professional body and political funding
The study found industry funds professional nutrition organisations. “It’s a really bad look and undermines the integrity of these professions,” said one of the study authors, Dr Gary Sacks. “The food industry also directly supports the major political parties. Our research came across examples of how proposed new health policies and industry regulations were axed because politicians didn’t want to upset major political party donors.”
Other tactics include the personal criticism of public health advocates (and this activity is not new, dating back decades in the world of nutritional science and seen around the world), and the sponsoring of children’s sport and nutrition education materials.
We are not alone
It is important to note that such activity by the food industry is not illegal – we just need to be aware such tactics that put profit before people are impeding potential policy to address issues like the rise in childhood obesity.
Lobbying by big business is not unique to Australia. We know ‘big sugar’ has long influenced nutritional research, health policy and education, and is prevalent across the globe including the U.S., Europe and Canada. And big industry funding won’t go away – but transparency and accountability are called for.
“In terms of solutions to counterbalance industry’s power to obstruct progress towards healthier food environments, the first step is greater transparency – sunlight is a great disinfectant,” Professor Swinburn says. “Food industry disclosure of the funding they provide to researchers, professional bodies, community groups, lobby groups and political parties would be a good start.
“More stringent conflict of interest processes, lobby registers and greater involvement of community and expert groups in the policy process would also protect politicians and government agencies from being unduly influenced by the commercial interests of the junk food industry.”
If people know, people will act. And long-term, armed with the best available, evidence-based information on food choice and health, we can keep nutrition simple and negate long-term health outcomes.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med)
Mialon, M Swinburn, B Allender, S & Sacks, G 2017, “‘Maximising shareholder value’: a detailed insight into the corporate political activity of the Australian food industry”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, [ePub ahead of print].
Dawson, J 2013, ‘Retailer activity in shaping food choice’, Food Quality and Preference, vol. 28, pp. 339-347.
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