Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why The Food Industry is Neither Friend nor Foe

This past weekend I had the pleasure and honour of debating Dr. Derek Yach at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology and Prevention, Nutrition and Metabolism Conference and the debate we were asked to have was entitled, "Food Industry: Friend or Foe". While I argued the "Foe" side, I actually think the debate title was a misnomer. Ultimately the food industry is neither friend nor foe as both assume that industry has the luxury of consistent intent beyond profit.

I don't think that it does.

That's not a mean spirited statement, just a truthful one as were a corporation to promote a product or program that ultimately undermined the corporation or their profits, that product or program would be dropped - just as we saw when Campbell's re-salted their soups, when Ruby Tuesday's lost their now legally required pre-emptive posting of calories on menus, and when Dr. Yach's former employer PepsiCo renewed their commitment to their core brands by upping their advertising buys for sugared soda and hiring teen idol Beyonce to be a brand spokesperson despite their stated aim of becoming the world's most profitable health and wellness corporation.

Ultimately if profits align with health then the food industry is absolutely going to be public health's friend. And if profits and health collide, then the food industry is absolutely going to be public health's foe. And honestly I think it's a failure of both sides of this argument to consider industry's ability to circumstantially be both friend and foe that leads to the black and white arguments that we should either be working with, or shunning industry.

My line in the sand in the debate was my usual one. I think dialogue, debate and the individual provision of counsel to the food industry in the grand scheme of things may well be in public health's best interests as it may in fact help industry to find those rare areas where health and profits do indeed collide, however once we add our institutional backing to the food industry I think we provide them with an almost irresistible means to further sales, whether by positive brand associations, misguided co-branded sales, ammunition with which to fight industry unfriendly legislation by validating the claim that they're working with so-and-so to be part of the solution, and the co-branded promotion of nonsensical messaging like balancing energy intake with output (never you mind our sugar water, you just need to exercise). Consequently I don't think public health organizations should formally partner with the food industry.

I'll be using the same slide set at the Canadian Obesity Network Conference in May where I'll be part of a panel discussing this very topic and I'm hoping to post them then. And hey, if you're near to or wanting an excuse to visit Vancouver between May 1-4, the conference looks great!