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The SA food industry and obesity – finding the middle ground

Just as consumers now blame cigarette companies for lung cancer, so they are increasingly blaming food companies for the obesity crisis. How has the SA food-drinks sector responded to this assault? Apparently, not very nobly or wisely, asserts well-known SA food science consultant, Nigel Sunley, in this article where he also offers some ideas on cogent changes of strategy. (This is based on a talk Nigel presented at the SAAFoST Congress 2017 in Cape Town in September.)

AS A long-standing food industry supporter who has worked there since 1975, I have always had a good deal of sympathy with the manner in which the industry is arbitrarily pilloried and vilified by the public health community for most of the diet and nutrition-related problems we face.

However, it is necessary to try and put some perspective on this matter and it was for this reason that I spoke about ‘finding the middle ground’ in my presentation at the SAAFoST Congress. I did this by looking at the attitudes of both the public health brigade and the industry and seeking solutions that would specifically tackle the obesity problem but also make commercial sense. 

If we look at the current status quo, the gulf between the two sides is alarming, to put it mildly.

Looking at the public health side, anyone attending the World Public Health Nutrition Association Congress held in Cape Town in August 2016 would have despaired at the outpourings of fanatical and totally impractical, loony-left ideology, along the lines of ‘if we can bankrupt Coca Cola, all our problems will be solved’.

One has to say that most of these people seem to live on another planet where we need neither a food industry nor processed food, and where seven billion people, never mind the nine billion we will have by 2050, can somehow be fed by unspecified, back-to-nature approaches based on so-called ‘people’s food’.

Their almost complete lack of understanding of food science, supply chain, human behavioural and taste preference issues, coupled with their spectacularly naïve assumption that heavy regulation of the industry is the answer, left one wondering whether to laugh or cry. 

I was not impressed and said so in an article I wrote for Food & Beverage Reporter. Much to my surprise I was, however, subsequently asked to join a working group at the University of the Western Cape to look at the potential for a wide range of potential food-related regulatory initiatives.

I appreciated their willingness to pull me into the debate (or maybe they never saw my F&B Reporter article!) and was relieved to find a considerably more open and pragmatic approach than was the case with the lynch-mob mentality prevalent at the WPHNA Congress.

That said, I still found the obsession with regulation alarming as it was very largely based on proposals which, irrespective of their desirability in principle, were, with very few exceptions, completely unfeasible in legal terms and equally unenforceable, particularly in the increasingly anarchic environment we sadly find ourselves in in South Africa.

Much as we can either despair or laugh at these people, the reality is that their voices are strongly heard in government circles and it is essential that industry puts resources into constructively opposing impractical legislative and taxation-based initiatives that are, at best, of questionable value.

However, this cannot succeed unless it comes from a position of moral high ground, otherwise the industry is throwing themselves open to the oft-stated position of the activists that ‘unless we regulate nothing will change’. 

It is thus critical for the industry to demonstrate a real commitment to providing some answers to the obesity issue from their side.

To this end, I looked at what initiatives our local food industry has undertaken in this area.

Non-competitive arena

It cannot be stressed too strongly that anti-obesity initiatives cannot and should not be viewed as competitive issues between companies – we are all in it together and will all get beaten over the head and suffer the consequences of unworkable legislation unless we do something.

Looking at the general trend, the industry has to date very largely pushed back in a, frankly, not always very well co-ordinated manner against most regulatory proposals, using arguments such as limited evidence of behaviour change through regulation, lack of local enforcement capacity and a preference for voluntary codes of practice as being more effective than formal regulation.

These arguments, however, typically carry very little weight with the public health activist brigade and certain sections of government who see regulation as the most effective and most readily implemented part of a holistic approach.

So I took a look at the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa’s Healthy Food Options initiative which is trumpeted on its website as ‘making available better-for-you food and non-alcoholic beverage options’, and apparently includes ‘measurable targets by various sector associations of the industry’ i.e. specific tangible actions as opposed to broad-based lobbying.

Sounds good, so I asked CGCSA to send out a questionnaire to their relevant members asking them to give brief details of the actual initiatives they were working on, even if these were still work in progress, with a view to summarising these during the SAAFoST Congress as examples of how industry is actually doing something tangible, and thereby potentially taking a bit of wind out of the sails of the regulation fanatics.

CGCSA duly obliged and I am most grateful to them for their efforts in this regard. However, the response was appalling with only Danone and Woolworths making any attempt to respond, otherwise stony silence and/or disinterest from both manufacturers and retailers.

Does industry actually care?

It certainly begs the question – does the industry even care about the obesity issue or are is it just cruising along in reactive rather than pro-active mode, and only focusing on the bottom line and the bonuses that go with it?

The argument that individual company initiatives should remain confidential until their actual introduction (which, I suppose, may have been at least part of the rationale for their silence on the matter) simply does not hold water – as stated above, obesity is a non-competitive issue and companies should be happy to use common approaches.

Openness and transparency by the industry are key factors, as not only will they demonstrate a clear commitment to the problem but also, by reporting on work in progress and openly explaining the challenges in introducing anti-obesity measures (which, I would be the first to admit, are very considerable in some food categories), a greater understanding of these challenges will be imparted to the regulatory authorities, thus facilitating constructive dialogue on potential future regulatory measures.

However, the lack of commitment that I saw reflected in the response to the CGCSA questionnaire is disgraceful and I can only say that the industry is shooting itself vigorously in the foot if this is the way they are going forward.  

So, it has to be said that the current status quo is not a happy one with the public health lobby pushing a shotgun approach via regulation and the industry seemingly in cruise control mode. Can we then even aspire to a middle ground?

Looking for solutions

Nobody pretends to have the proverbial magic bullet but perhaps the best and most practical proposals have come from a study carried out by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) in 2014 entitled ‘Overcoming Obesity: An Initial Economic Analysis’. (You can download an executive summary or the full report)

McKinsey may not currently be the flavour of the month in South Africa for well-known reasons, but no one can deny that its research capabilities are world-class and the MGI report is superbly put together, comprehensively referenced and above all highly objective in its approach and conclusions.

Perhaps its key component is a section in which no less than 16 individual anti-obesity strategies are sorted into a league table that evaluates them in terms of actual effectiveness (as measured by disability-adjusted-life-years or DALY’s – a well- known and scientifically credible measure of the impact of health related interventions), cost and, very importantly, the strength of the scientific evidence supporting each strategy.

The results make fascinating reading, as they place portion control and product reformulation at the top of the table in terms of effectiveness and leave the public health driven choices of regulation and taxation languishing near the bottom.

Of particular interest is the highlighting of the lack of evidence that taxation of high fat and sugar products has any significant effect – why was this not used more effectively during the soft drink tax saga?

The report clearly motivates specific approaches that industry can take on portion size and reformulation, so marketing and R&D people need to pull their fingers out and establish what can and cannot be done in practice in these areas.

The public health lobby will not like the report very much as it provides very little support for their chosen approaches and they will presumably resort to the time-honoured, emotional and irrational approach of writing off MGI as ‘biased evil capitalist supporters’, irrespective of the high quality of the report which, unlike their own material, actually makes an attempt to rationally consider the various alternative solutions, rather than simply plug individual initiatives in an anything but objective manner.   

So where to from here?

Industry clearly neither can nor should be expected to provide all the answers but it needs to act otherwise the future will not be easy.

Portion size and reformulation are the way to go, coupled with in-house, and maybe external, nutritional audits of their product ranges, potential re-allocation of marketing resources towards products of better nutritional characteristics and, dare I say it, why not inclusion of nutritional targets in KPIs for bonus determination?

I believe at least one multinational is doing the latter already and it should become the norm.

Well-advertised initiatives of this sort, coupled with well-motivated and unemotional push-backs against questionable regulatory and taxation based initiatives, are essential – and will have far greater impact if companies can stop their obsession with blanket secrecy and speak out publicly on their anti-obesity activities.

I can say confidently that government is not as anti-industry as one might think and is happy to engage constructively providing industry shows willingness to come to the party. My personal experience of the successful re-vamping of the staple food fortification regulations, in conjunction with the milling and baking industries over the last three years, demonstrates this.

However, government must also accept that efficacy, and not necessarily cost, should be the key prioritisation driver i.e. read the McKinsey report!

I think government does realise that much of the would-be regulation promoted by the more way-out sections of the public health community is simply not feasible – but it needs to see industry commitment as well, otherwise it will simply be railroaded into pushing through impractical, feel-good measures that will achieve nothing and cause industry a great deal of pain.

So let’s talk to each other!

To the public health brigade, I would say that I applaud your passion and share many of your objectives, but you need to get real and make a much greater attempt to understand the commercial, behavioural and food science-related facts of the situation. Whether you like it or not, the food industry and processed food are here to stay and we need both to feed the world.

It is also disappointing that so many public health activists are in the education business, but seem to spend so much time and effort launching academic tirades against industry when they are actually there to educate people – how about a bit more focus on nutrition education, which is what you are actually being paid to do?

But above all, wouldn’t it be nice if both sides would find the middle ground by actually talking to each other? An obesity summit, driven by industry and the food-related scientific societies, would be a real demonstration of intent.

I am sure the more practical members of the public health nutrition community would welcome it, while the lunatic fringe who appear to object to even sitting at the same table as industry would be neatly side-lined and shown up as the ideologically-driven and impractical political animals they are.

We live in hope – how about it CGCSA?

About Nigel Sunley:

NIgel SunleyNigel Sunley is a highly experienced food scientist, with extensive commercial experience, and is one of SA’s foremost labelling and regulatory experts. See more here

E-mail: nigel@sunleyconsulting.co.za

 

 

 

 

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