Monday, January 31, 2011

Ending public-private partnerships between Big Food and Health

Sorry for the late post, the embargo lifted at noon.

Today's edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal contains an editorial the I co-authored with Paul Hebert. In it we argue that partnerships between food conglomerates and health organizations should be avoided.

The risk is straightforward. Partnerships by definition serve to benefit both parties. For the health organizations the benefits involve some combination of money, resources and exposure. For the food industry the benefits include sales, brand image improvements (which in turn translates into sales) and spin which may serve to help deflect criticism or further political needs.

The increase in sales is problematic in that more often than not, the brands that partner with health organizations are the very brands whose images or products may be considered unhealthy. Moreover, the consumption of more food, even more healthy food, won't help with our obesity problem.

The usual Big Food suspects involved in such partnerships most often include purveyors of sugared soda, sweets, savory snacks and fast food. While arguments can be made that the funding they provide is helpful and at times may further the needs, aims or research of health organizations, it does so at the expense of those very health organizations serving as inadvertent pitchmen to help sell products that run contrary to their public health aims.

Some argue that since all private partnerships (meaning not just partnerships with Big Food) have their warts (things like environmental concerns, fair trade policies, child labour issues, etc.), that the call to action should be for health organizations to abandon all private partnerships. While there may be some merit to that argument it's important to explain the Big Food distinction in that partnership with them involves corporations whose products themselves contribute to the very burdens their partnered health organizations are striving to combat.

We all need to stop relying on the food industry. As individuals we need to renew the art of cooking from scratch with whole, healthful ingredients and stop kidding ourselves that reheating, stirring, and mixing count as home made meals. As health organizations we need to find new and novel means to raise funds and awareness. And while divestment may not be fair or easy, given our dire circumstances, can we really continue to afford not to?

These partnerships do not exist in a vacuum. Diet and weight related illnesses have become the number one preventable cause of death in North America. Health organizations need to divest themselves from Big Food partnerships lest they contribute unwittingly to that burden.

You'll find the full text of our editorial online at the Canadian Medical Association Journal]

Yoni Freedhoff, & Paul Hebert (2011). Partnerships between health organizations and the food industry risk derailing public health nutrition CMAJ