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Food industry is focus of science magazine series

June 20, 2012|By Mary MacVean
  • The food industry has a major role in public health, a science magazine says.
The food industry has a major role in public health, a science magazine says. (Associated Press )

Multinational food corporations have a growing influence on the health of people around the world, including obesity, and their actions need greater scrutiny, according to an editorial Tuesday in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine.

The editorial kicks off the journal’s three-week series looking at what it calls “Big Food.” The first articles, and the editorial, criticize not just the food companies but also officials charged with protecting public health.

“The big multinational food companies control what people everywhere eat, resulting in a stark and sick irony: one billion people on the planet are hungry while 2 billion are obese or overweight,” the editorial says.

Although the companies’ primary goal is to make a profit, “the perspectives and experiences of Big Food are shaping the field of global health,” the editors say.

The editorial notes that food company executives provide expertise at major conferences, offer knowledge of food science and distribution and take part in public-private partnerships.

In one of the first two articles in the series, David Stuckler of the University of Cambridge and Marion Nestle, the well-known activist and nutrition professor from New York University, contribute an opinion piece that concludes: “Global food systems are not meeting the world’s dietary needs.”

In the United States, the 10 largest food and beverage companies control more than half of all food sales, and three-quarters of the world’s food sales involve processed foods, Stuckler and Nestle write.

“Increasing consumption of Big Food’s products tracks closely with rising levels of obesity and diabetes,” and self-regulation has not worked, the authors say.

In a statement in response, the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. notes that U.S. food and beverage companies “enthusiastically support” the goal of First Lady Michelle Obama to solve childhood obesity in a generation.

Since 2002, the companies have introduced more than 20,000 products with reduced calories, fat, sodium and sugar, and more whole grains, the organization said. The industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation has pledged to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the food supply by 2015, and companies have adopted guidelines for advertising on children’s programming, among other initiatives.

Nestle and Stuckler also take public health officials to task, noting that a United Nations meeting on preventing noncommunicable diseases “recognized the urgent case for addressing the major avoidable causes of death and disability, but did not even mention the roles of agribusiness and processed foods in obesity.”

“Public health professionals must place as high a priority on nutrition as they do on HIV, infectious disease and other disease threats,” they write.

Over three weeks, PLoS Medicine plans to publish articles about the food and beverage industry and health, to be collected online.

The Public Library of Science Medicine is an open access international journal that publishes research and analysis.

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