Has the world already reached Peak Health? If so, who’s to blame?

The concept of peak oil has spread into the health sector, with public health professionals now talking about peak health in the same vein.  This draws important parallels between our health as humans and the health of our planet – the two, as we have known for some time, being inextricably linked.

So have we already reached peak health?  Are we therefore now heading down the slippery slope away from it?  If, as experts predict, today’s children will not live as long as their parents (due to increasing obesity and its ensuing chronic diseases), perhaps we are.

And if we have surpassed peak health, who or what is to blame?  Having recently returned from a largely finger-pointing and teeth gnashing Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) conference in Canberra where there was much discussion on peak health, I know that many believe the blame lies with food manufacturers and marketers.

“How can they truly have the health of consumers as their main objective, when their main objective is to make a profit for their shareholders?”

That old chestnut.

In fact all organisations are constrained by financial realities, whether this involves making a profit, breaking even or maximising value for money.  The ever present clamour for public sector funding to undertake health research is but one example of how money makes the world go around in the public as well as the private sector. We all need to make a living to feed and house our families, but most of us feel better in our work if we know our employer genuinely cares about us and others.

Actually what motivates businesses is far more basic than money.  It’s survival.

At the NZ Food and Grocery Council’s half yearly meeting last week I was heartened by what John Doumani, General Manager for the Fonterra business in Australia and New Zealand said about how to build immortality into brands.  He suggested that unless companies prioritise their objectives in order of customers first, employees second and shareholders third, they will not survive.

Looking after your customers means looking after their interests, in particular their health.  Same for employees; after all, no one enjoys work for a company which puts shareholders first above all else.  Ensuring customers are happy and healthy, and employees feel great about the company they work for will satisfy shareholders in the long term.  Any wise and sustainable food manufacturer knows this.

Still, it seems that food manufacturers struggle to do anything right in the eyes of public health critics.  Even affordable foods, developed (at great expense) by food companies to provide high levels of the nutrients commonly missing from diets in developing countries, were criticised at the PHAA conference. It left me questioning what food companies could possibly ever do right for such critics.

What do you think food manufacturers, and others can do to help us regain peak health?

Categories: Food Industry, Food Trends, Health Promotion, Nutrition and Health

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3 replies »

  1. There are a number of ways that food manufacturers can (and are) work with governments to improve the education, food preferences, purchasing behaviour and the balance of food categories consumed. If there were clear, achievable goals that food manufacturers could report on and be be graded against then public health critics would have less to question. It is not knowing that causes misunderstandings. Marketing, price and availablity are tools of public health and food manufacturers; if the goals are the same there should not be a problem?
    The distribution system for fresh fruit and vegetables in New Zealand appears to add cost to this important component of a healthy food supply. In some areas I understand the goods travel the same road twice. Is this right? Is there some innovative way where the miles covered by F&V are reduced and the time (and cost) from garden to mouth reduced? Suggestions from industry please

  2. Food industry rightly expect to make a profit. What we lack is government [either party] willingness to regulate by rules or economic measures. CocaCola Amatil for example will have to accept their products are mostly harmful to health and either reformulate or stop selling them. Same for the fast food industry, Bluebird and so on. We could start by removing GST from appropriate foods [e.g. fruit and vegetables either fresh or simply frozen or canned in water] but not soft drinks, alcohol and other health-harming items. It shouldn’t be very difficult to make the division. Then if a product is reformulated it can move to GST free status. This is better than the traffic signal concept which can mislead because it usually has a restricted list of characteristics such as “low salt” or “low saturated fat” but may not have much nutritional benefit either.

  3. Can’t say that I completely agree with you John, but thanks for your comment. I still believe that it’s about overall dietary and lifestyle choices – not individual food or beverage products. Companies such as Coca-Cola and Bluebird are definitely reformulating and expanding their ranges to provide more choice and meeting demand for lower energy beverages and foods. But that doesn’t mean existing products should be demonised or no longer sold. “Red Coke” has been sold for over 100 years with the same formulation, so it’s clearly not the only cause of obesity.
    No, I tend to agree with Elaine when she says “it’s not knowing that causes misunderstandings”. That’s exactly right. All of the good work that is being undertaken by food and beverage manufacturers needs to be better communicated to and understood by those working in public health.