Multi-national food companies accused of undermining health policies

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Governments across the world are being called on to counteract the influence that multi-national food companies are having on stalling healthy food policies.

In June, a meeting on the progress of obesity prevention efforts in low and middle income countries was held in Bellagio, Italy. The Bellagio Declaration was released yesterday at the International Congress of Nutrition in Granada, Spain, calling for greater efforts from organisations and governments to protect healthy food policies from the lobbying efforts of large food corporations, or 'Big Food and Big Soda.'

Professor Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina said, "Governments see the rising tsunami of obesity flooding over their countries, but as soon as they put up serious policies to create healthier food environments they get hammered by the food industry."

The policies which provoke this response are regulations to reduce the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, front-of-pack labelling systems to help consumers readily assess the healthiness of the food, and taxes on unhealthy foods like sugar-sweetened beverages, said Professor Carlos Monteiro, University of Sao Paulo, a co-convener and one of Brazil's leading public nutrition researchers.

Different countries' experiences were published this week in Obesity Reviews, and showed that the obesity epidemic is rising very fast in many developing countries, rapidly catching up or overtaking undernutrition as the dominant nutrition problem.

"This is creating a double burden of co-existent overnutrition and undernutrition within many populations or even within households," reads a statement from the International Association for the Study of Obesity.

The director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Margaret Chan, has recently called the lobby forces of 'Big Food and Big Soda' one of the biggest challenge that countries face as they try to reduce obesity and diet-related chronic diseases.

She outlined some of the tactics the food industry has been using such as lobby groups, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research. The Bellagio Declaration calls on WHO to develop norms for government engagement with the private sector so that partnerships are not detrimental to nutrition goals.

"The first priority for food policies is to improve nutritional outcomes for the population, not the bottom lines of multi-national corporations," said Professor Boyd Swinburn, co-chair of the International Obesity Task Force.

Earlier this week Oxfam updated its Behind the Brands scorecard ranks, and found that leading food brands are being very sluggish in improving their social and environmental policies.

No company performed better overall than the 'fair' category, with companies including Nestle, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Danone and General Mills experiencing slight increases in their scores. Associated British Foods, General Mills and Kellogg's are at the bottom of the scorecard with few signs of progress.