Thursday, February 28, 2013

Is the Food Industry Public Health's Best Target?

A little while back I published a blog post entitled, The Talk the Food Industry Couldn't Bear to Hear and included in it a presentation that ultimately concluded the only real obligation I felt the food industry had was not to blatantly lie to consumers, and that much of the blame for the food industry's questionable products and practices fell on us as a society for letting them get away with what ultimately amounts to slow motion murder. Thanks in large part to the folks over at Reddit, that video has now enjoyed nearly a quarter of a million views.

Well on Monday I gave what perhaps can be thought of as a sequel to the food industry talk.  I've called it, "What's Public Health To Do" and in it I make the case that public health needs to throw more stones. And I think that right now those stones are probably better thrown at our own glass houses than the food industry's reinforced bunkers in that I think there's plenty we need to work on in-house and presumably, we'll have a more willing audience.

In business it's said that it's far wiser to spend your resources retaining an existing customer than trying to woo new ones. Here our customers are the folks who are already sweating their life's blood promoting and protecting public health and frankly I'd expect they'll be far more open to change than the folks we seem to want to woo as new customers - the food industry - whose life's blood is spent promoting and protecting profit.

Whether it's improving food in our schools, hospitals and public health institutions, improving nutrition fact panels and front-of-package labeling laws and self directed programs, removing vending machines from sporting facilities, creating evidence based resources for communities that tell the truth about exercise not being an obesity panacea, fixing summer camp menus and weak school food policies, or combating weight bias in public health messaging, there's plenty for us folks who care about public health to do.

One person attending the talk took some issue with my recommendation to throw stones stating that wasn't how public health gets things done. While I appreciate where she was coming from I think we do need to speak up more, we need to have a loud and unified voice, and indeed not be shy to throw stones. I don't recommend we throw them at individuals, but rather at what we feel to be broken. Critically appraising existing programs, calling out inadequately designed interventions - that's not the same as criticizing people and frankly if those programs or interventions are easily defensible, the criticisms will be easily deflected. I'd argue that staying quiet in the face of things we know to be wrong or misguided, while perhaps the polite thing to do, is a failure of our seminal obligation to the public - to protect, promote and preserve their health.

For those who are interested, the talk's just under 15 minutes long.

[And just a quick note. In the talk, and previously on my blog I talk of how when I provided testimony to the Ontario Healthy Kids Panel the only person furiously scribbling notes was a food industry representative named Phyllis Tanaka. After my talk she informed me that I was mistaken, and that it's simply her habit to keep notes and that they were for herself personally and the panel, and not her representative food industry organization. Of course it's also my recollection that the panel had their own official secretary.]

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  1. From Justin Stoneman's rant:

    People in America like to think that they eat with freedom. Ultimately, however, they can only pick what is presented to them, and what they can afford. Then, the decision is based on what they believe to be healthy, tasty and safe. With that in mind, can you imagine how great it would be for the industries mentioned above, if dietary advice given could be contained and restricted to just one organization that they could pour money into? That scenario is not just some North Koreanesque wet dream. It is USA 2010.

    The ADA (American Dietetic Association) has complete monopoly on dietary advice. To keep the bubble airtight, the full might of the law has even been implemented. Kim Jong-il would be proud of the attention to detail.

    Staggeringly, in 46 out of 50 States, the message the authorities want you to have is protected. The law determines who is able to provide you with nutritional advice.

    The Commission on Dietetic Registration is the credentializing agency for the ADA. A practicing dietician not registered with the ADA or CDR is liable to face prosecution in over 90% of the country.

    With that in mind, who precisely is 'sponsoring' the ADA and the nutritional advice you receive?

    My friends, it is a beautiful army. Partners (recent and current -- and their latest annual revenue figures):

    Coca Cola (revenue $31.4 billion), GlaxoSmithKline (revenue $42.5 billion), Hershey's (revenue $5.3 billion), Unilever (revenue $55.8 billion), Aramark (revenue: $12.3 billion). There are even some 'premier sponsors': Mars (revenue: $30 billion), PepsiCo (revenue $44.3 billion), Truvia sweetener (revenue of parent company Cargill: $116.6 billion), Kellogg's ($12.7 billion).
    ADA 'sponsors' have combined revenues of over $400 billion.

    Why are these gargantuan companies -- whose only intention is to make money, not make you healthy -- allowed to fund the ADA?

    The ADA themselves can perhaps assist us. On their own website (in the section where they are trying to seduce corporate America), they offer a helping hand:

    Why Become an ADA Sponsor?

    As ADA past president Martin Yadrick stated in a 2008 US News & World Report article: "We think it's important for us to be at the same table with food companies because of the positive influence that we can have on them."

    But, Martin, darling, they are paying you to be at their table. You are publicly telling America that you are somehow the one wearing the trousers in the relationship? My headline must be correct -- even the ADA seem to think that America is stupid.

    So, with the system in place, what would be the ideal message that corporate America could choose to create to strengthen their businesses?

  2. What are you implying with "weight bias in public health messaging"? That public health messages should not address obesity as a problem or that it psychologically does not work to address it bluntly?

    If the former, please remember that a huge share of illnesses befalling members of western societies today do track back to obesity.

  3. Public health wonk + nutrition nerd, right here. Happy to start collecting my bag of stones.