Junk science: food companies accused of using tobacco’s tricks to protect profits

New report claims that multinationals are using manipulative tactics that undermine public health

Global food and drink companies are using techniques pioneered by the tobacco industry to undermine public-health policies designed to combat obesity, diabetes and alcohol-related illnesses, a new study claims.

Multinational firms have distorted research finding, paid large sums to build relationships with health bodies and lobbied governments to block health regulations, according to the paper published in The Lancet.

It argues that the British Government's reliance on voluntary self-regulation and "nudge theory" techniques to change consumer behaviour will do little to reverse the global spread of disease caused by junk-food diets.

The study, led by Professor Rob Moodie, of the University of Melbourne in Australia, also details the grip that trans-national corporations such as Kraft, Nestlé, Mars and Unilever have on global food markets in the developed world and their increasing reliance on low-income countries for continued growth. The 10 largest companies now control more than 15 per cent of all food sales – three quarters of which are made up of highly processed foods such as frozen pizza, burgers, biscuits and fizzy drinks.

The study team concluded that the only way to achieve the United Nation's goal of halving the mortality rate for diseases caused by tobacco, alcohol and poor diet is through greater regulation. The report concluded: "There is now evidence to show that the food, drink, and alcohol industries use similar tactics and strategies to the tobacco companies to undermine public health interventions."

Among the techniques allegedly used to avoid unwanted industry regulation was the building of partnerships with health bodies. The report highlights the three-year arrangement between the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and confectionary giant Nestlé announced in 2012.

Janet Voûte, global head of public affairs at Nestlé, said last year that the partnership was evidence of the company's commitment to "nutrition, health and wellness".

Last night, Nestlé said it was was "proud" to support the IDF. "We believe in the power of multistakeholder actions to deliver better nutrition, encourage healthier diets and physical activity, and to promote health and wellness initiatives worldwide," a spokesman added.

However, the report says "there is little objective evidence that public-private partnerships deliver health benefits, and many in the public-health field argue that they are just a delaying tactic of the unhealthy commodity industries". It also accused companies of distorting research findings and investing millions of dollars in lobbying politicians to promote policies conducive to the needs of the industry.

The report added: "From the denial of tobacco addiction as late as 1994 to the obstruction of traffic-light labelling of unhealthy food and the recent detraction of alcoholic drinks from EU labelling legislation, the tobacco, alcohol, and food industries have all tried to block access to objective health information and to manipulate channels of communication."

Professor Moodie said that so-called nudge theory in which people are encouraged to change behaviours with light-touch policies had little impact on reducing the health toll. "You can't expect self-regulation to work. It is like having the burglars install your locks. You think it might work and you are safe but you are not," he said.

But food manufacturers last night insisted that voluntary codes were working, pointing to the elimination of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as ingredients in foods and a 10 per cent reduction in salt levels in many products over the past five years.

Barbara Gallani, director of food safety, science and health at the Food and Drink Federation said the industry recognised the need to tackle obesity and diet-related diseases.

"UK food and drink manufacturers are working in partnership with government, health organisations, NGOs and other stakeholders as part of the Public Health Responsibility Deal, to reduce salt and calories in products and to promote healthier diets and more physical activity," she said.

Lobbying: the big names

SAB Miller: The Grolsch brewer and the International Centre for Alcohol Policies assisted Lesotho, Malawi, Uganda, and Botswana in writing alcohol- control policies. According to The Lancet, the plan served “the industry’s interests at the expense of public health”. A SAB Miller spokesman said that it contributed to workshops but that the national governments were responsible for developing the policies.

Tesco: Britain’s biggest retailer spent five years opposing the introduction of  the red, amber and green “ traffic light” system for the labelling of food’s nutritional values – the preferred method of the Food Standards Agency. Tesco finally bowed to consumer opinion in 2012 despite having spent £4m previously promoting its own system which did not incorporate red lights. 

Pepsico: In 2009 the soft drink maker spent $9m lobbying US Congress, according to the US Senate Office of Public Records. Filings with the Federal Elections Commission show that in the 2008 election cycle the company’s Political Action Committee, the so-called Concerned Citizen Fund alone contributed $547,700 to candidates for federal office.

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