The PloS “Big Food” series is presenting seven articles examining the food and beverage industry’s impact on health. Guest editors for the series are Marion Nestle of New York University and David Stuckler of Cambridge University.
Nestle, a long-time critic of the industrialized food system, recently wrote, “It’s hard to believe how thoroughly Congress is in bed with the food industry.” Stuckler is a social epidemiologist who has looked at the impact of economic stresses on public health.
Describing their rationale for taking on Big Food, the PLoS Medicine editors write:
Foremost, large food and beverage companies now have an undeniably influential presence on the global health stage. Whether it’s food company executives providing expertise at major conferences and high-level UN meetings or major global health funders lecturing on what nongovernmental organizations can learn from Coca-Cola, the perspectives and experiences of Big Food are shaping the field of global health. At the same time that their expertise is elevated in global health debates, food companies are rebranding themselves as “nutrition companies,” offering business acumen and knowledge in food science and distribution, and asserting authority over solutions to problems not just of food production but of malnutrition, obesity, and even poverty. The legitimization of food companies as global health experts is further fueled by the growing number of private-public partnerships with public health organizations, ostensibly designed to foster collaborative action to improve people’s health and wellbeing. And yet food companies’ primary obligation is to drive profit by selling food. Why does the global health community find this acceptable and how do these conflicts of interest play out?
Next: Time to Put Big Food in the Hot Seat
For too long, public health has tiptoed around Big Food. PLoS is pulling back the veil of silence with a series that should be required reading for all health professionals. The first article in the series – “Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health” – starts by throwing down a gauntlet: “Global food systems are not meeting the world’s dietary needs.” Admitting “that action requires tackling vested interests, especially the powerful Big Food companies with strong ties to and influence over national governments,” the guest editors insist, “we must make choices about how to engage with Big Food.”
The second piece in the series compares the corporate social responsibility campaigns of two industries: soda and tobacco. The authors accuse both of spending heavily “as a means to focus responsibility on consumers rather than on the corporation, bolster the companies’ and their products’ popularity, and to prevent regulation.” In other words, when McDonald’s sponsors the Olympics or Pepsi launches its Refresh Project, their bottom line is profit, not public benefit.
The series is sure to prompt vigorous and important debate. Big Food’s impact on world health has been devastating. This series calls on public health advocates, whether consumers, professionals or policy makers, to wrestle with the issues and insist on change.
The articles will all be accessible on the PLoS Medicine Series on Big Food site.
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