Big Food and Public Health Don’t Mix

A handful of multinational food companies are pushing the sugary drinks, fast food, and processed foods that are the source of ill health across the world

Remember that time, not that long ago, when tobacco was seen as an innocuous pleasure? In the early 1940s, my grandmother’s doctor even suggested she take up smoking after she had her first child, to calm her nerves. She took his advice, and never stopped.

In these intervening years, thanks to advocates and public health officials standing up against the industry, we’ve come to understand the real impacts of tobacco and have worked to curtail the industry’s influence on regulation and policy. In 2003, the World Health Organization adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Treaty. Ratified by nearly every one of the 194 member states, the treaty set out clear actions to address the public health crisis of smoking. One critical provision was Article 5.3, which my partner organization Corporate Accountability and a broad global coalition from around the world advocated for. That provision states that parties “protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”

photo of a man pushing a food cart on a tropical beachNestle is peddling its products in the most isolated pockets of Brazil, contributing to a significant rise in obesity there. Photo by Leonardo Sá

Today, we face another global public health scourge that is on course to be as devastating as tobacco: the rise in diet-related illnesses, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes. But we, as a global community, have yet to clearly point a finger at the corporations driving this crisis: the handful of the biggest multinational food companies that are pushing the sugary drinks, fast food, and processed foods that are the source of such ill health.

In many places around the world, these very brands are perceived as the purveyors of healthy, clean, modern cuisine. A recent New York Times piece focused on how just one of these companies, Nestlé, is peddling their products in the most isolated pockets of Brazil.

Nestlé’s reach has led to a phenomenal rise in obesity there, even among children. While the company boasts about reductions in sugar, salt, and fat in its products, some of the most popular items in Brazil are the KitKats, chocolate pudding, flavored yogurt, and other sugar-sweetened products that are having a damaging impact on public health – not just in Brazil but throughout the global South.

While consumption of packaged foods, sugary drinks, and fast food is slowing in the United States, it’s booming in other parts of the world. Consumption of packaged foods worldwide jumped 25 percent from 2011 to 2016; fast food went up 30 percent during that same period, and in Latin America, soda consumption has doubled just in the last five years.

In this context, healthy food advocates are calling on the World Health Organization, again, to ensure that policies are developed free from the influence of “vested interests” – in this case, the food and beverage industry. At present, these companies regularly engage with the United Nation’s health policy arm. Consider that listed on Nestlé’s corporate website as a partner is the World Health Organization itself, with whom, the company says, it partners on “nutrition, health, and wellness.” Says Corporate Accountability: “There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the private sector, including the food and beverage industry, and public health policy outcomes. The industries which profit from the epidemic of childhood obesity and have acted to undermine advances in public health policies cannot be regarded as ‘stakeholders’ in the policy process.”

There is a debate raging in the halls of the World Health Organization about whether multinational food corporations should have the ear of the United Nations’ public health agency’s decision makers, either through official relations, as they do through trade associations, or by being invited into high-level conversations about global policy. But there is a clear and unavoidable conflict of interest when you’re talking about the very companies contributing to diet-related illnesses through their most profitable products.

Article 5.3 kept the tobacco industry out of the negotiating room. We need to do the same for the food industry.

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