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June 26, 2012

Dealing with Big Food: Slow public health response to large food companies' influence

Recently, the world population exceeded 7 billion people. One billion of them is hungry, while at the same time two billion are overweight. This shows we have a huge problem in meeting people's dietary needs. As what people eat is increasingly determined by a few multinational food and beverage companies, this month a new series of articles on the influence of these companies ('Big Food') will appear in PLOS Medicine Magazine. Highly recommendable!

David Stuckler and Marion Nestle start off with their essay on Big Food's problematic influence on the global food system. The authors cite research that shows that the ten largest food companies control over half of all food sales in the United States. Unfortunately, what they successfully sell consists primarily of processed foods enriched in sugar, salt and fat. Frequent consumption of these foods is associated with excess weight and chronic diseases.

The decades-long fight against tobacco has provided us with insights on typical tactics used by industry to undermine public health measures such as taxation and regulation, they state. Basically, that is because food companies aim to maximize profits and not health. They do not like interventions that threaten their profits.

Public health professionals are slow in responding to the threat of Big Food and the authors therefore urge for more strong and conscious choices about how to deal with Big Food's influence. Dealing with the food industry involves more than partnering or waiting for self-regulatory initiatives. It requires a critical approach, recognizing the conflicts of interests that play a key role.

Stuckler and Nestle conclude by stating 'without taking direct and concerted action to expose and regulate the vested interests of Big Food, epidemics of poverty, hunger, and obesity are likely to become more acute'.  A strong plea for action...

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