Does commercial success by food companies equal public health failure?

finger pointing 1Many public health advocates believe this about successful food companies:

Food companies exist solely to make money, so they will sell whatever people will buy. Healthy food provides smaller margins, so they fill their food with cheap processed ingredients that lack nutrition.  And then they market these foods to appeal especially to the most vulnerable (eg, children).  This has caused the ‘toxic’ food environment and high rates of obesity and diabetes.

When you view the world through this lens, it’s certainly easy to find examples to illustrate it.  For example:

  • It’s hard to find a reasonably priced wholemeal salad sandwich amongst the shelves of confectionery and chips at a convenience store or a petrol station.
  • A sausage roll and fries is much cheaper than a chicken salad at most cafes.
  • How many times have you been trapped behind a ‘back of the bus’ promotion for the latest lolly and cream-filled frappé offering? (It always happens to me when I’m driving a carload of hungry children, so I know the effect these ads have on kids.)

It’s true: healthy choices are often difficult choices – especially for those most stretched for time and money.  They often go against the yummiest or the cheapest option – and we all know that taste and price are the major drivers to purchase.

Regulation, marketing restrictions and taxes on foods and beverages are being proposed by some as the means to change this.  I propose they won’t change this because they won’t achieve the fundamental societal shift that’s needed to encourage people to willingly adopt the harder option.

There are many aspects of life in which the right choice is not the easiest choice, but regulations are not the best answer:

  • Most people find it easier to spend money than to save it.  Does that mean we should all be denied access to retail outlets on certain days of the week?
  • It is easier for parents to let children watch TV for entertainment rather creating more sociable entertainment, or ensuring the homework is done instead.  Does that mean parents should not be allowed to have television sets?

Why is food and health any different?

As a dietitian working with a range of food companies, I also see things through a different lens.  It is easy to paint food companies as faceless, profit-hungry global entities who don’t give a damn about the health of the planet or their consumers, and to blame the current food environment on them (and the government for letting them do it).  But the burden of proof placed on those companies to demonstrate how fictitious this is, is often too high to scale, especially considering the lack of reason and objectivity that exists in the debate around “Big Food”.

Food companies – and especially the global ones in my experience – take their obligations to their communities, employees, consumers, environment, suppliers, stakeholders and shareholders equally seriously.  That is how they succeed.  A company who purposefully harms the health of their consumers is not sustainably commercially successful.  So no: commercial success does not equal public health failure because true commercial success requires public health gain.

Unlike the tobacco industry, the food industry is able to produce and promote healthier food and portion options – something many companies have been actively working on for decades.  Increasing the momentum of this change depends on consumer demand, and this is influenced by a huge range of societal influences, in which we all have a significant part to play. What do you think you could do?

Categories: Food Industry, Health Promotion, Nutrition and Health

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2 replies »

  1. Donnell, you argue that “a company who purposefully harms the health of their consumers is not sustainably commercially successful”. However Tobacco companies purposefully harm their customers and control of the unarguable harm done by smoking has only been achieved through regulation and public action.

    Surely, as long as it is more profitable to produce and market junk food there will be companies there to exploit that market niche? As you acknowledge “taste and price are the major drivers to purchase” and since the taste of junk food is so appealing (sugar and fat – the perfect hedonistic combination :-P ) then realistically what tools are we left with other than trying to influence price and availability of junk food?

  2. Thanks Lisa. Apologies for the delay in posting due to IT challenges!
    I have a problem with the comparison between food companies and cigarette companies, as food companies (which is whom I’m speaking of) have the ability to alter their product mix. In fact they have, and continue to do this. Yes, some small players may aim to exploit a market niche, but they are not the food companies who are in it for the long haul – who seriously do factor the nutrition and the health of their consumers into their business sustainability plans. As such they are able to achieve far more change over time by bringing consumers with them, than through blunt tools like legislation. I guess my point has alwyas been that the ‘tool’ with the greatest power to create positive change is to truely collaborate across all sector groups.