Can an Obesity NGO Take Money from ‘Big Food’?

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, a festive time of feasting with friends and family. Since food takes centre stage during this holiday, I thought this would be a good time to bring up a whole other turkey of a discussion that’s been simmering on my back burner for a while. Warning: I am serving this with a large smattering of sarcasm on the side.

As readers may be aware, in my ample spare time I volunteer as the Scientific Director of the Canadian Obesity Network – to my knowledge, the largest NGO of obesity professionals in the world – dedicated to fighting weight bias and promoting evidence-based solutions to obesity prevention and management.

Wearing this hat sometimes puts me in situations where I have to face important questions like whether or not the Network could possibly partner with or accept money from corporations – especially those deemed ‘part of the problem’.

Food corporations, like all corporations, exist to make money for their shareholders. They do so by selling food and beverages – as much as possible, to as many customers as possible, with the greatest profit margin possible.  Unhealthy foods are cheap to make and distribute, while healthy foods are expensive to make and distribute. Therefore, the more unhealthy foods ‘Big Food’ can make and sell, the greater their profits.

So are food and beverage companies to blame for the obesity epidemic? Are they tainted in the same way that ‘Big Tobacco’ is tainted for promoting and selling cigarettes?

Tobacco causes cancer and heart disease – tobacco companies sell tobacco – so taking money from tobacco companies to fight cancer and heart disease is probably not a good idea. This is especially true if giving a small share of their profits to fight cancer and heart disease actually helps them sell a lot more tobacco (perhaps even to little children slaving away in sweat shops in developing countries). In fact, you could argue that if tobacco companies were at all serious about preventing cancer and heart disease, they could simply fire their employees and quietly go out of business.

If only things were that straightforward when it comes to linking Big Food to obesity.

First of all, most major food corporations also makes some foods that are healthy (or can, in moderate amounts, be part of a ‘balanced’ diet).  In contrast, although some tobacco products may be less harmful than others, no tobacco company makes a truly ‘healthy’ tobacco product.

Secondly, no one needs to smoke – but everyone needs to eat. So while we will all happily survive even it the last tobacco company went out of business – most of us would likely go hungry if even just a few of the major food corporations stopped making food.

But neither one of these arguments is really the topic of today’s post. Rather, this post is about addressing the concerns of purists and health-evangelists, who point out that, since all major food corporations make and sell at least some products that may well ‘promote’ obesity, for an obesity NGO to accept ANY support from Big Food (even if there are ‘no strings attached’) can only be completely and utterly unacceptable. Doing so, they argue, would amount to nothing less than helping Big Food sell even more of their ‘obesogenic’ foods. Essentially, the argument goes, taking money from Big Food – even if only to fund a worthwhile project, like addressing weight bias or supporting professional education – is merely ‘putting lipstick on the pig.’

So if the argument is that an obesity NGO simply cannot partner with any food (or beverage) company that makes ANY ‘unhealthy’ food products because by doing so would only help the corporation sell even more of their unhealthy foods, then I would happily argue that the same logic should apply to any business or industry that makes money by enabling or promoting ‘obesogenic’ foods (or other obesity-promoting products).

To me this would imply that an obesity NGO would also have to say ‘no’ to funding from the folks who happen to make any of the unhealthy ingredients that go into these unhealthy foods and drinks – food processors, chemical manufacturers and so on.

But why just them? Isn’t the production of these unhealthy ingredients also promoted by the irresponsible corporations that produce the (genetically modified) seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics required to grow or raise these unhealthy ‘ingredients’?

And why stop there? How about the retail and restaurant industry and the evil marketing and advertising companies that unscrupulously continue to make handsome profits from helping Big Food ‘push’ these unhealthy foods onto gullible consumers?

What about the media corporations that make billions by publishing and broadcasting advertisements for unhealthy ‘obesogenic’ products to our children? What about the nefarious designers and software companies that make the programs that make these advertisements and commercials so appealing, or the institutions that teach people the skills that can be misused for such purposes? What about the many scoundrels who make the very equipment that allows mass publishing of these ‘obesity-promoting’ ads?

And let us not forget the dastardly entertainment industry that unethically makes billions each year by cleverly littering their movies, video games and live events with product placements for unhealthy foods and drinks.  And don’t even get me started on the obscene billions that Hollywood makes from irresponsibly licensing cartoon characters to boost sales of even more junk to kids. And aren’t these the same folks, who also produce those addictive TV shows that keep us in front of screens late into the night instead of allowing us all to go to sleep at sunset so that we can get enough sleep and not have to crave those unhealthy foods in the first place? And wouldn’t banning television past 8:00 pm encourage us to sleep, so we can wake up bright and early with enough time to eat a healthy leisurely breakfast?

Indeed, I simply cannot see how any obesity NGO could ever partner with or even consider accepting free ‘air-time’ from an industry that puts on a “Hockey Night in Canada” only to keep people glued to their TV sets (which incidentally allows them to happily sell even more ads for unhealthy foods and drinks)?

Indeed, why even stop at unhealthy foods?

Isn’t sedentariness as much part of the obesity problem? Isn’t the automobile industry and the personal computer industry and those irresponsible and unethical companies that make industrial robots and elevators and escalators or garage door openers also to blame?

How about the IT and electronics industry that will not cease and desist till every one of us carries at least three portable (time-saving?) ‘personal’ devices and will not rest before there is at least one LCD or plasma screen in every room of our homes?

And how about those scoundrel land developers who put us all at risk for obesity by continuing to build unwalkable communities? And how, exactly, are we punishing the fiendish architects who cunningly hide the entrance to stairwells deep in the bowels of their buildings?

Which reminds me, isn’t there also a problem with the air-conditioning industry that allows us to control our environment to temperatures that destroy brown fat, thereby preserving bazillion calories worth of non-shivering thermogenesis?

And why would anyone even consider taking money from the banks that finance these evil industries?

Which makes me really wonder about the folks who shamelessly make good money working for these industries and then impudently seek to ease their troubled conscience by ‘generously’ donating a minute fraction of their annual income to health charities, all the while actively contributing to the childhood obesity problem by failing to ban unhealthy foods and TV screens from their homes and irresponsibly continue dishing up obscene Turkey dinners for their family and friends.

And let us not forget the many self-righteous ‘white-hat’ researcher/activist-types, these incorrigible do-gooders, who make a rather respectable living by unrelentingly waving their fingers (in New York Times bestsellers and box-office-busting award-winning ‘documentaries’) at the evil dark forces that promote the very conditions (cancer, heart disease, obesity) that they are funded to study.

And last but not least, how can we even trust the health care industry or those parasitic health ‘charities’. After all, isn’t their only raison d’etre the very fact that people get unhealthy by doing unhealthy things (like trying to live forever)? Just imagine the catastrophic scenario that would completely devastate the ‘pink ribbon’ industry if someone somewhere actually did suddenly find ‘The Cure’! (Imagine all the people who would be left with no reason to run!).

So why just go for the easy targets – the ‘Big Foods’ and ‘Big Drinks’ of the world? Why not go after anyone and everyone, who is in any form or fashion is part of the problem or ruthlessly profits from it.

So please, if you work for or even just happen to own any shares of the above-mentioned industries in your retirement funds, please do not offend obesity NGO’s by offering them your money.

Also, if your company has ever taken money from any of these industries thereby enabling their ‘evil deeds’, and most certainly, if any of your employees have ever supported any of these industries by consuming any of these companies’ products (even just the ‘healthy’ ones), then please DO NOT CALL US.

And, taking this line of reasoning to its ultimately absurd conclusion, if you have ever paid taxes to support any government that has ever passed any laws to support ‘obesogenic’ industries – or that simply refuses to pass laws to ensure that we are only and at all times surrounded by ‘healthy’ products – please do not block our telephone lines with your offers of support.

In fact, I’d much rather see organizations like the Canadian Obesity Network turn off the lights forever than even remotely have to consider accepting donations that are the fruit of ill-begotten gains and will only serve to make the problem even bigger.

Perhaps simply shutting down the Network is indeed the surest way to ensure that no one (corporate, non-corporate, or private citizen) will ever misuse their contribution to the Network (however big or small) to make the obesity problem worse than it already is.

I could simply not imagine myself waking up to a front-page headline that screams:

Big Food Funding for Obesity Network Helps Canadians Pack on the Pounds.

I sincerely doubt I could live with myself if that were ever to happen.

How about we simply accept that all of us are more or less part of the global obesity problem and that all of us need to be part of finding solutions. Only large corporations and governments (and perhaps a handful of philantropists) have the necessary clout to support the activities of an organization like the Obesity Network, which I hope most people will agree, is trying hard to find and promote solutions based on the best scientific evidence and reasoning.

Pointing fingers, politicizing and demonizing is not helpful. ‘Unconstructive’ criticism will take us nowhere.

And believe me, I am not proposing or seeking an ‘appeasement’ strategy – I am also not talking of blankly endorsing or implicitly white-washing any industry or all of their practices.

But to close the door to funding and partnerships that could help the Network accomplish its declared strategic goals and objectives, simply based on a matter of ‘principle’, would ultimately mean giving up.

Yes, there need to be clear rules, policies, transparence, accountability, governance and oversight – the more the better – fortunately, the Canadian Obesity Network has all of that and more.

I, for one, would like to thank all of the many partners and members of the Network for their unwavering and enthusiastic support. I invite all who consider themselves part of the problem to step up to the plate and become even a small part of the solution!

Happy Thanksgiving to All.

Edmonton, Alberta