How SA food companies shape public health policy in their favour

Including building close relationships with government departments, influencing scientific research and sponsoring community events.
Government should be held accountable for its role in addressing obesity and diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, in South Africa. Shutterstock

Obesity and diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, are major public health problems in South Africa. But many in the food industry strongly oppose globally recommended policies that could address these issues. Such policies include restrictions on marketing of junk food to children and improvements to food labelling.

In a new study, we identify strategies used by the food and beverage industry in South Africa to influence public health policies. The strategies include building close relationships with government departments, influencing scientific research and sponsoring community events.

Two years ago South Africa increased taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages despite strong opposition from industry. Health experts fear that those with vested interests could thwart or delay other initiatives designed to protect people’s health. There is a proposal, for example, to increase the sugary drinks tax by 5%. There are also efforts to put new warning labels on unhealthy foods and restrict their marketing.

Our study focused on the political strategies used by ten major food and beverage industry actors in South Africa in 2018 and 2019. We identified the tactics they used by examining publicly available information, such as company reports, media releases and government documents.

We found 107 examples of food industry practices designed to influence public health policy in their favour.

The strategies we observed echo the tactics used by tobacco companies around the world to counter recommended public health policies.

Partnerships between the food industry and government

The actors we looked at included the biggest food producers in the country as well as global beverage companies.

We found several high-profile partnerships between companies and some government departments. These included the departments of basic education, sport & recreation, and health. Company-branded school breakfast programmes and education campaigns were among the initiatives.

The food industry also sponsored a range of community events. These were usually heavily branded, with promotional material targeted at children.

This contradicts industry commitments not to market to children under 12 years old.

Many corporate-sponsored community programmes focused on poverty alleviation and under-nutrition.

We also found examples where the food industry donated sugar to food security efforts.

These partnerships between the government and the food industry could compromise the credibility, independence and priorities of ministries. For example, donations of sugar are likely to be in opposition to the objective of reducing rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

We also found examples of the food industry lobbying government policymakers. This was largely in opposition to the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that was implemented in April 2018.

Food industry actors emphasised their role in the economy, with a focus on job creation. They ignored the cost that diet-related ill health has on the health system.

In addition, they framed the conversation on disease prevention as being about physical activity and individual responsibility. This language diverts attention away from the harmfulness of unhealthy food products. It also shifts the blame onto consumers.

We concluded from our findings that the food industry’s tactics were designed to reduce the likelihood that the government would adopt global recommendations to tackle rising obesity rates and improve population diets. These include restrictions on marketing of junk food to children and improvements to food labelling.

Industry tactics also increase the chances that the solutions favoured by the industry are adopted by the government. This is despite evidence that the solutions preferred by industry, such as self-regulation of marketing to children, are much less effective than other solutions, such as mandatory restrictions on marketing unhealthy food products.

What can be done?

There are several mechanisms that could be used to counter industry influence and interference in policymaking.

As a start, the government could make more information available to the public. This could be done through listing political donations and gifts to government officials, publicising the diaries of ministers and other senior government employees, and publicly releasing correspondence between corporations and government officials.

In academia and civil society there could be public disclosure of potential conflicts of interests. Grants and awards from corporations could be disclosed.

Given the urgency of the problem, the government needs to be held accountable for its role in addressing obesity and diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, in South Africa.

And the food industry should refrain from using practices that may delay the adoption and implementation of globally recommended public health policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of strong government leadership for health. Accordingly, it is important to strengthen existing mechanisms to manage industry influence.

This could lead the way to stronger policies that make a long-term difference to the health of South Africans.The Conversation

Gary Sacks, associate professor, Deakin University; Eric Crosbie, assistant professor, University of Nevada, Reno, and Melissa Mialon, honorary research fellow, Universidade de São Paulo.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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I stopped reading when the article sounded like it supports sugar taxes and that other nonsense.

Nothing will come between me and my sugar. I don’t drink or smoke, I sugar.

If I need advice about my health firstly I have to be unwell then I go see a doc.

What are you gonna come after next? A cooking oil tax? Salt tax? Every food stuff is toxic if taken excessively and not in good proportion to other foods. Water alone will kill you. Pure oxygen is bad for you.

And taxes to this government are a fund raising for looting scheme. Maybe all this is about money.

My taste buds matter. I hate candarel, it’s got an after taste.

I am into honey, fizzies, caramel, sugary tea and the like. I have a right to eat what I want so leave my sugar alone.

I agree. Nobody needs to prescribe to us how we should live and what choices we should make. We are not children who need to be protected from themselves. I haven’t had sugar in the last 30 years, but I surf with sharks in the vicinity. I calm my nerves with facts and statistics, for if we do not have facts, our emotions get the better of us. For every surfer who loses a limb due to a shark attack, more than 10 million individuals lose a limb due to white bread, or a spoon of sugar.

Therefore, I love surfing, and I don’t fear the great white shark, but I am very scared of the small white spoonful of sugar. Some people refuse to go into the water if they see a shark. I understand that because I refuse to go into a kitchen if I see sugar there.

Ja nee. Nobody takes responsibility for what they put in their mouths. Blame the government and food producers for obesity. But not the people.

We need the right marketing- a lot of people do not know sugar is bad for you.

PS do the school feeding schemes support small local producers or only big corporates where none of the money stays in the community?

Don’t be ridiculous. Let me let you into a little secret. The reason academics hate industrialists is because they realise economic power is the only real form of power. Academics are really miniature poodles yapping on the sidelines. Politicians, feathering their own nests ignore them and the captains of industry treat them with deserved contempt. People who have never run a business nor could they if their lives depended on it. They seek absolute control and influence of every facet of our lives, but produce little of value for society. If they vanished today few would mourn. Yet they persist demanding that the regime tax and legislate according to their every whim.

There is a lot of conflicting information out there but we have mounting evidence that the exploding obesity, insulin resistance and type II diabetes epidemics are due to excessive consumption of carbohydrates. The solution is to eat more fat and protein as well as above-ground veggies. However, eating healthier comes at a cost that no academic will recognise. This is impalatable in a poor country with an exploding population. The reason mielie meal is the staple diet in SA is because that is what the population can afford. It would be very easy for the food producers to feed the maize to pigs and convert it to the same amount of calories at 10 times the price. A lot of poor women in South Africa are obese simply due to what they eat. The solution is upliftment via real jobs, ability for them to create wealth and stabilising of the population numbers. Not more legislation, taxes and pulling down those who produce the nations food. Certainly nothing the ANC could accomplish in a millennium.

The populations around the world that are the healthiest, have the least diseases and live the longest all eat a diet very high in fruit and vegetables and whole grains and very low in animal protein(meat,milk, cheese, yoghurt). The sugar protein in red meat can trigger cancer.

Dr Campbell and his team with their Chinese counterparts study called the China Study paid for by the US tax payers money and not corporations money showed that Chinese people living in a polluted city Beijing in China who ate very little animal protein had much lower risks of cancer than Americans living in a polluted city eating a diet very high in animal protein.

Junk food advertising should be banned in South Africa like it is banned in Mexico.

End of comments.

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