Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The political power of Big Food

On June 20th the Science Media Centre (set up by the Royal Society with funding from what used to be MoRST - details here) published a blog column on the power of Big Food and the need to subject the food industry to greater scrutiny. The blog in turn talks about a series being published by the wonderful Public Library of Science, a wiki open-access site that publishes Brainy Science Stuff. The series will look at the activities and influence of the food industry in the health arena. Specifically, they're interested in the impact of corporate food entities on public health: as the introduction to the series notes, the world food system is failing millions - one billion people on the planet are hungry, and two billion are overweight or obese. By any measure, this is a public health issue.
At the same time, Big Food has aggressively lobbied to stall any serious attempt by politicians to regulate it in the name of the greater public good. This is not entirely unsurprising: for a start, in the happy neoliberal environment in which we live, the orthodox view is that overweight/obesity is a personal failing, despite very good evidence that it is as much a product of the environment as individual shortcomings. So successive governments have tended to use social marketing campaigns to persuade individuals to change their behaviour (eat less, eat better, exercise more), meaning they don't have to tackle the food lobby head on. Then there's the fact that an overweight population creates the illusion that age-old problem of food supply has been solved. It hasn't, and overweight/obese people are often short of nutrients. But politically it's easy to say "look at people. They're overweight, they can't be hungry".
Here in New Zealand we have our own fatties, with the burden of obesity and its associated diseases being disproportionately shouldered by low-income people. A number of public health experts have sounded the alarm and asked for greater regulation on junk food advertising. A paper published late last year by researchers at the University of Otago outlined the different framings of obesity as between the food industry and public health groups, and notes that as far as government policies were concerned, the food industry won.
The SMC blog notes some comments by New Zealand food researchers on the need to scrutinise the activities of Big Food in New Zealand, including: "their influence is everywhere...the food industry position on individual responsibility dominates the media discourse" (Dr Gabrielle Jenkin, University of Otago); "A focus on food is important as is a focus on the BIG responsible players and their corporate social policy" (Professor Elaine Rush, AUT); and "Energy-dense and nutrient-poor (EDNP) foods are linked to obesity which, in turn, increases the risk of serious chronic illnesses such as diabetes.  Where products present risks to public health, it seems reasonable to review the marketing used to promote them with the marketing used to promote other unhealthy products, such as tobacco" (Professor Janet Hoek, University of Otago).
Since taking office in late 2008, the National government has proved to be a friend of Big Food. Even the tokenistic social marketing campaigns have been axed, regulations requiring schools to sell healthy food to students have been dumped, and the stalling on alcohol reform suggests that National is far more interested in its campaign coffers than public health issues. And it seems National is still throwing bones to the junk food industry. Two days after the blog arguing Big Food in New Zealand needed to be subject to greater scrutiny, National made yet another crony appointment and appointed former National MP Katherine Rich, now head of the Food and Grocery Council (you know, the food lobby group) to sit on the board of - ahem - the Health Promotion Agency.
If you've ever been in a meeting with the Food and Grocery Council, you'll know that they see their mission as blocking ANY attempt to regulate or otherwise limit junk food promotion, advertising, sponsorship of events and food labeling initiatives. Rich will be there in her role as a blocker. Her appointment to an agency that has the term "health promotion" in the name is beyond satire.
In the meantime this appears to have largely passed under the radar. A king-sized peanut slab to the first pollie to question this appointment in public, and to have the guts to say obesity is not all about personal responsibility.