Obesity is a global epidemic that is “bankrupting economies and short changing futures”, we were told during a round table at the World Economic Forum in Davos this weekend.
The statistics are quite frightening. Over the last 30 years, the proportion of the global population that is obese has doubled, Prof. Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, revealed. Obesity-related diseases currently kill 2.8m adults each year and it is likely that this figure will continue to rise.
Efforts to combat this significant threat to global economies and personal health have met with limited success. Although the World Health Organisation declared obesity an epidemic in 1997, stakeholders have yet to develop a comprehensive collective plan to slow the growth of our girths. Indeed, if obesity levels continue to rise at their current rate, in another 20 years as much as 50-60% of the world population could be classed as overweight.
As Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke told attendees at Davos, the food industry has often come into the firing line over obesity: “We are attacked and that is because we live in a society that wants to blame”.
However, Bulcke argued, assigning blame and placing responsibility squarely at the door of the industry fails to recognise the complex nature of the obesity crisis, which encompasses myriad issues from poverty to our now prevalent sedentary lifestyles. “It doesn’t help to blame only one part [of the chain]… There is not one solution, there are many solutions that have to converge,” he insisted. Bulcke called for a multi-stakeholder approach that – unsurprisingly – relied on voluntary action rather than regulation.
According to Bulcke, Nestle is working to address the issue through reformulation and innovation. The company has also formed partnerships with governments around the world in an effort to promote nutritional education, such as the group’s Healthy Kids Programme. He said that Nestle has “no interest” in short-term gain in this area: “We are long-term… it is a matter of survival for society but also for companies.”
Yet, even as Nestle works across the industry with other food companies and retailers through initiatives including The Consumer Goods Forum, it is fair to say that the Swiss giant is a stand-out player in this field.
“There are some food and beverage companies that are doing quite a bit, but the majority are not,” Marc Van Ameringen, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, retorted.
Alluding to the example of PepsiCo, a company that was “not rewarded” by shareholders for moving in a healthier direction and away from its core junk food and fizzy drinks offering, Van Ameringen highlighted an “uneven commitment” from the industry.
“The first thing [done to tackle obesity] needs to be around how we regulate the food and beverage sector,” he insisted. The current self-regulatory, voluntary approach is lacking in “teeth”, Van Ameringen added.
The debate over regulation as a means to tackle obesity is not new to our pages. Indeed, only last week UK public health minister Anna Soubry sent a warning shot across the bows of the industry when she said more companies must join the Responsibility Deal on health or risk the government imposing regulations.
Meanwhile, in an interview with just-food, chair of the food portion of the Responsibility Deal Dr Susan Jebb, said that it is imperative that companies come under greater pressure to sign up to the Deal.
“People have got to start finding it more uncomfortable to be outside of the Responsibility Deal,” she told just-food at the Food & Drink Federation’s (FDF) conference on ‘delivering healthy growth’.
Jebb accused some companies of hiding their heads “below the parapet” and said there is a need to “start putting those companies under greater scrutiny”, as to why they are not “stepping up to the plate”.
The message from UK regulators seems to be coming in loud and clear then: The food industry must take voluntary action to reformulate products and adjust marketing messages or the likelihood of legislation will grow significantly.
In the US, too, we have seen this “carrot and stick” approach in full force. While the administration under Barack Obama certainly seems to have entertained the idea of legislation to govern the food industry, it has met some success through its voluntary Lets Move campaign.
In our review of the Obama Administration’s first four years, it is apparent that this inclusive and conciliatory approach is an olive branch that has largely been gratefully grasped by the food industry.
Over the next four years, with much of Obama’s legacy now pinned to gun control – and in the face of the US food industries deep pockets and significant lobbying clout – regulation of the food industry could seem like less of a policy priority. Nevertheless, much will hinge on the effectiveness of voluntary programmes. If the industry is perceived to be resting on its laurels, it is likely that regulation will once again loom large in the political lexicon.
Do you expect the regulatory environment to tighten during 2013? Take a moment to complete the just-food confidence survey, found here, and share your views with us. This is the last week that the survey is open and our findings will be shared in a webinar in February.