Industry, Policy, and Obesity

The global economic crisis has certainly put the topic of government regulation and oversight on the table. Even the conservative folks (e.g. Alan Greenspan) somehow tend to agree that perhaps more government oversight on the banking system may have been in order.

So how is this discussion of government oversight relevant to obesity? 

In this regard it may be worth reading a recent commentary in JAMA by David Ludwig and Marion Nestle (no relationship to the food company) on the question: “Can the food industry play a constructive role in the obesity epidemic?”.

As Ludwig and Nestle point out:

“… greater profits come from highly processed, commodity-derived products – fast food, snack foods, and beverages – primarily composed of refined starch, concentrated sugars, and low-quality fats. These already inexpensive products are made even more inexpensive by massive agricultural subsidies.” 

“The inverse relationship of processing to nutritional quality is illustrated by the progressive decline in the satiating value of apple-containing foods, from the whole fruit to apple-sauce to apple juice, as profitability increases.”

“Thus, food industry strategies to increase revenues typically depend on “eat more” campaigns designed to promote larger portions, frequent snacking, and the normalization of sweets, soft drinks, snacks and fast food as daily fare. Advice to eat less often, eat foods in smaller portions and avoid high-calorie foods of low-nutritional quality undermines the fundamental business model of many companies.”

In times of an economic crisis resulting from the direct failure of responsible oversight of the banking system, it is noteworthy that Ludwig and Nestle draw a comparison to the drawbacks of a purely market driven economy, in which manufacturers are free to sell poor-quality products, leaving the customer to chose or reject them. While this may work for many products – food is perhaps not one of them.

In their commentary, they use the analogy of cars, which, like food products, have benefits and risks to society:

“The government imposes regulations, mandates, taxes, and incentives to encourage production of safer and less polluting vehicles.” 

“Society does not expect car companies to police themselves, nor allow them to market unsafe cars in exchange for initiatives to reduce accidental injuries from other causes”. 

“The Government’s role is to regulate [the food industry] by establishing rigorous standards for nutrition at school, banning food marketing targeted to children, and forbidding unsubstantiated health claims on food labels.”

This regulation is important as:

“if one company advertises to young children, other companies would be at a competitive disadvantage if they adhere to ethical marketing standards. By establishing clear rules of conduct – leveling the playing field upon which all companies compete – society can free the industry to focus on what it does best: finding creative ways to satisfy consumer needs, in this case making healthful food economical, convenient, and tasty” 

“Society cannot depend on [food companies] to address obesity voluntarily, any more than it can base national strategies to reduce highway fatalities and global warming solely on the goodwill of the automobile industry.”

Although, I am generally a great friend of free enterprise, as with the banking industry, I tend to agree with Ludwig and Nestle that when it comes to products that directly affect our health, safety, or greater social good, certain checks and balances may well be needed to truly harness the full power of industry to provide innovative solutions for society.

Edmonton, Alberta