Governments Must Create a Level Playing Field for Companies Trying to Sell Healthier Foods

Government has an important role to play in protecting and improving the health of its citizens. This role also extends to promoting a healthy and wholesome food supply.

Anyone, who disagrees, is perhaps best directed to an article by Dana Olstad, Kim Raine and Linda McCargar (University of Alberta), published in Public Health Nutrition, which makes a strong case for government regulations in improving the quality of foods available to children in public facilities.

This paper follows on the heels a previous paper, in which these authors documented the appalling state of foods and beverages sold in publicly funded recreational facilities across Alberta.

The current paper is of particular interest, because it delves into the ‘whys’ that prevent some facility operators from offering healthier fare to their clients.

The researchers conducted in-depth structured interviewers with operators of all six privately operated, for-profit food service companies that provide foods in recreational facilities across Alberta. These included both companies that have and those that haven’t adapted voluntary, government-issued nutrition guidelines (Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Youth, ANGCY), which

“categorize food and beverages according to their nutrient content as ‘choose most often’ (consume daily), ‘choose sometimes’ (≤3 servings/week) and ‘choose least often’ (≤1 serving/week), and recommend that healthier options be available at all times and fresh, convenient, visible and attractively packaged and priced.”

The rather unexpected finding of this study was that,

“Most managers agreed that government-mandated adherence to the ANGCY was the only feasible means of achieving widespread adoption in recreational facilities, as voluntary adoption was not in their financial interests…. Ideally, managers felt adherence should be mandatory for the entire food service sector, or at minimum for those businesses located within close proximity to recreational facilities.”

In addition,

“The lack of a single, national nutrition standard was an important barrier to implementation of the ANGCY for franchised operations, which had to simultaneously comply with several different provincial standards.”

Overall, this ‘call for mandated regulation (even for Canada-wide standards), is perhaps not all that surprising, given that:

“Managers felt very susceptible to competitive pressures and were concerned that the ANGCY targeted a small number of sectors. If they could not sell the items their customers demanded, then patrons would simply purchase unhealthy items elsewhere….The problem was particularly salient for one vending machine company that had implemented the ANGCY in a facility where the concessions had not.”


“Requiring all food service companies, or at minimum all of those within close proximity to recreational facilities to adhere to the ANGCY was seen as a means to level the playing field upon which all companies compete.”

This, as the researchers (and managers) point out, may only be achievable through legislation, as voluntary codes (even if adopted by the majority of players) would leave the compliers at a competitive disadvantage to those companies, who chose to not play by these “voluntary” rules.

As a strategy to move such an agenda forward:

“public–private partnerships can embrace public health goals in the short term, provided that industry perceives a potential for long-term financial gain.”

However, not all companies may realize or consider what may be in their own best (long-term) interest:

“Non-adopters maintained a strong focus on short-term profitability…. focused on immediate, visible outcomes, had a low tolerance for risk and preferred to conform to industry norms……Adopters, on the other hand, were innovators… took a long-term view of profitability and were willing to take small risks, sacrificing short-term profitability to remain on the leading edge of market trends.”

Obviously, forward-thinking innovators could perhaps themselves play a role in moving those “market trends” towards increasing demand for healthier fare by reallocating marketing dollars away from unhealthy foods to promoting healthier choices.

In the mean time, Olstad and colleagues may well be correct in that the best solution could be for regulators to step in and create a (Canada-wide?) level playing field that will nudge both vendors and consumers towards healthier foods.

Edmonton, AB

ResearchBlogging.orgOlstad DL, Raine KD, & McCargar LJ (2012). Adopting and implementing nutrition guidelines in recreational facilities: tensions between public health and corporate profitability. Public health nutrition, 1-9 PMID: 23149122