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Food industry response to obesity may ‘hurt industry interests’

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 11-Oct-2010

The food industry’s current strategy for addressing public health goals and reacting to criticism often works against its own interests, claims a new commentary critical of industry’s response to obesity.

In the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Jeffrey Koplan of the Emory Global Health Institute and Kelly Brownell of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity acknowledge positive recent actions such as industry’s endorsement of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, improved nutrition labeling and availability of smaller portion sizes, but claim that other industry practices “obstruct public health goals and may even hurt industry interests by creating public relations liabilities and provoking rather than preventing government intervention.”

Koplan and Brownell wrote that the industry can play a constructive role in tackling obesity and related diseases, but public mistrust is increasing due to several current tactics.

In particular, they claim that industry partnerships with health organizations or medical professional organizations are widely seen as “a cynical way of buying influence and good will”; emphasis on total dietary calories is misleading as not all foods are nutritionally equal; and health claims on high-fat or high-sugar foods that are reformulated with added vitamins or fiber are “scientifically dubious”.

“A new approach is needed,” the authors wrote. “An excellent beginning would be to suppress automatic opposition to public health…and embrace recommended changes.”

They also criticized the use of ‘funded front groups’, such as Americans Against Food Taxes, and lax criteria behind self-regulatory pledges that allow sugared cereals to qualify as ‘better for you’ products.

They wrote: “Real progress will be made when industry reformulates products, actively promotes moderate portion sizes, develops pricing that does not offer minimal marginal costs for more calories, acknowledges reputable science from peer-reviewed journals, avoids conflicts of interest with scientists and professional organizations, acts and markets ethically with consistency across borders, develops meaningful criteria for self-regulation, and creates a long-term strategy that addresses both business and health goals.”

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