Why We Shouldn't regulate Big Food... At Least, Not Yet

A recent article published by Kelly Brownell in PLos Medicine arguing for the regulation of the food industry has gone off like a hand grenade. Health, diet, and wellness websites are all abuzz this week over his contention that "Big Food" will always be a self-serving, socially irresponsible force — a problem that Brownell believes can only be answered by government intervention.

Brownell's clearly right that we need to make some changes here — but his suggestions are way too over-the-top. Instead of regulating the big food industries with a heavy hand, we should educate the public so everyone can make informed choices. But given how rapidly our food supply keeps changing, we may eventually need the sledgehammer, after all.

The "corporate playbook"

In his open-access article, "Thinking Forward: The Quicksand of Appeasing the Food Industry", Brownell argues that the food industry has failed to meet its social obligations over and over. He writes:

[The food industry] has been in high gear, making promises to behave better, but their minor progress creates an impression of change while larger attempts to subvert the agenda carry on. Witness the massive resistance against soda taxes in the United States and the wholesale attack of marketing standards proposed by the Interagency Working Group. Worst perhaps is the issue of marketing food to children. The industry launched the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative designed to "…shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles". Objective reports, however, have shown a tidal wave of marketing of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods to children, and if any change is occurring, marketing is on the increase.

Companies boast of introducing healthier options, and at least one report cites this as evidence that market forces (e.g., consumer demand for better foods) will be the best motivator for companies to change. But introducing healthier processed foods does not mean unhealthy foods will be supplanted, and might simply represent the addition of more calories to the food supply. Furthermore, the companies have not promised to sell less junk food. Quite the contrary; they now offer ever larger burgers and portions, introduce ever more categories of sugared beverages (sports drinks, energy drinks, and vitamin waters), find ever more creative ways of marketing foods to vulnerable populations (e.g., children), and increasingly engage in promotion of unhealthy foods in developing countries.

Also, Brownell says the food industry distorts science, creates front groups to do its bidding, and compromises scientists — what he says are standard tactics taken from the "corporate playbook." Because the food industry can't be trusted with our health, he argues, the government needs to step in.

Not so fast

While it's difficult to argue with Brownell's assessments, his analogies to regulations in the tobacco, automotive, and financial sectors seem kind of forced — because those other things aren't as personal and individual as our food choices. Telling food companies what they can and cannot produce is akin to telling people what they can and cannot eat. People deserve the right to make their own decisions when it comes to food — even when those choices may not be in their own best interests.

Why We Shouldn't regulate Big Food... At Least, Not Yet

And who's to say it's wrong to indulge from time-to-time? Is Brownell suggesting that we sweepingly remove anything that's considered "unhealthy" from the market? Who's going to decide what's unhealthy in any case, given the lack of scientific consensus on such matters?

Plus Brownell grossly underestimates the power of consumers to impose the change he's looking to see. Already today there is a correction happening in consumer food choices. The media is full of coverage of the obesity epidemic — and in response, people are learning about what it means to eat more healthily. Already, we're starting to see the rise of "cleaner" and healthier products, in addition to the spread of organic markets and grocery stores that carry more sensible food choices. If consumers do change their eating habits, the food industry will have to adapt accordingly — it will go where the money is.

Why We Shouldn't regulate Big Food... At Least, Not YetS

But the government could get involved — by providing incentives for corporations to produce healthier food options. The government could also spend its time and money educating the public on how they can make better food choices — rather than trying to impose choices on them. Actually, it would be nice if the government worked to educate itself on what constitutes healthy food. The recently revised "food plate" in the United States is still considered by many experts to be inadequate.

Which brings another issue to mind: Governments are capable of making mistakes. Take the recent "fat tax" in Denmark. It turns out the jury is still out on the health impacts of eating saturated fat, and new evidence is suggesting that it may have been unfairly maligned. The greater culprit, it is now argued, is sugar — but no one seems interested in creating a "sugar tax" — at least not yet. Again, the health impacts of fat and sugar are still up for debate, but it's this uncertainty that makes the prospect of regulation a precarious proposition at best.

The fear of future foods

Now, all this said, there may come a day when Brownell's call for regulation may be necessary. There's no question that our dietary choices have changed dramatically over the years. We are no longer a rural people — and our mostly urban population is utterly dependant on whatever we find in our local grocery stores. And as Big Food further entrenches its growing monopoly on virtually all of our food choices, the government may eventually have no choice but to impose a system for ensuring the health value of the foods that corporations produce.

Why We Shouldn't regulate Big Food... At Least, Not Yet

This will likely become even more necessary as foods become increasingly high-tech (i.e. genetically modified) and as the food industry infuses our foods with various nutrients, vitamins, and other substances that are supposed to be good for us — so-called functional foods and nutraceuticals. As our foods become increasingly medicalized by the food industry, they run the risk of posing health risks for those who may be sensitive. Given that it's completely unregulated right now, it's unlikely that the food industry is even thinking along these lines, content just to get the product on the shelves.

At the very least, Brownell's paper provides food for thought. He's right that there's a problem — even if his proposed solution is too severe. Let's hope the changes he calls for can come about through the actions of an educated public that deserves unhindered access to a wide variety of safe, healthy, and delicious foods.

Top photograph by Ariwasabi via Stockfresh.com. Inset images via FFC, Fresh Healthy Vending, Planet Green.