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Talking Point

Is the food industry following in tobacco’s footsteps?

02-Apr-2009

FoodNavigator-USA.com asks its readers whether it is justified to compare the food industry with tobacco.

A recent joint study from Yale University and the University of Michigan has compared the food industry’s marketing strategies to those of the tobacco industry in the 1950s.

“Because obesity is now a major global problem, the world cannot afford a repeat of the tobacco history, in which industry talks about the moral high ground but does not occupy it,” the authors wrote.

There is no doubt that the food and beverage industry has been making efforts to reformulate towards healthier products in recent times, reducing saturated and trans fats, sugar and salt.

But is this evidence of industry shouldering its share of the obesity burden, or is it simply reacting to market trends so it can continue to make a profit?

In other words, as joint-author Kelly Brownell put it: “Can you count on industry to do this out of goodwill, or will the market just demand these changes because people want better foods?”

The authors also suggest that the food industry emphasizes consumers’ personal choice as the cause of obesity, playing on deep-seated values of personal responsibility and freedom.

Does the food industry take enough responsibility for the potential health impacts of its products, or is it guilty of ‘framing’ obesity as an issue of individual accountability?

Meanwhile the public has become increasingly skeptical of food manufacturers’ claims and Mintel analysts have claimed that ‘rebuilding trust’ will become a top industry priority. Could this skepticism lead to public opinion turning against the food industry in the same way as it turned against tobacco?

What about funding of scientific studies – while it may be a necessity for cash-strapped researchers, does it also skew the available science?

The authors claim that food manufacturers “plant doubt when concerns are raised about the industry” and “criticize studies that hurt industry as ‘junk science’”.

What do you think?

We would like to hear your views on what you think is behind the industry’s marketing strategies and whether the comparison to big tobacco is a fair one. Click here for our original coverage of the study.

Please send your comments of no more than 100 words to caroline.scott-thomas 'at' decisionnews.com by April 8th, putting ‘Tobacco and food’ in the subject line.

We will publish a selection of the best responses, covering all angles of the debate, on Thursday April 9th.

Please note that comments will be taken to be 'on the record', and the sender's name and affiliated company/organization will be published.