Scientists are calling for the food and beverage industries to be scrutinized to the same degree as the tobacco and pharmaceutical giants.
Editors of the journal PLoS Medicine said in an editorial Tuesday that their publication and other medical journals have failed to shine a light on the influence of food companies on national and global health.
Big multinational food companies control what people everywhere eat, resulting in a stark and sick irony: one billion people on the planet are hungry while two billion are obese or overweight, the editors wrote.
In April, Reuters found that the food and beverage industries have doubled spending on lobbying in Washington over the past three years. And it's paid off: Soda taxes proposed in 24 states were voted down or dropped, and regulations that would have set nutritional standards for marketing food to children and overhaul school lunches were defeated or withered on the vine.
According to PLoS Medicine editors, food companies have been furnishing experts in food science for scientific conferences and government meetings, all while being primarily driven by profit. Some, like chocolate giant Nestle, have also been engaged in rebranding themselves as nutrition companies. Nestle now calls itself the world's leading nutrition, health and wellness company and has invested millions in developing functional foods that are marketed with health claims.
But despite these developments, less than a dozen articles examining food industry tactics have appeared in major medical journals over the past decade, the editors said.
PLoS Medicine, perhaps in an effort to reverse the trend, will be investigating the maneuverings of the commercial food industry for the next three weeks in its series Big Food.
One of the first papers appearing in the series comes from the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston and draws parallels between corporate social responsibility campaigns undertaken by soda and tobacco companies.
In the 1990s, when the cigarette industry was facing massive lawsuits and tightened regulations, tobacco companies launched programs to rehabilitate their public image. One such program at Philip Morris highlighted the company's contributions to charities, and all major tobacco companies launched youth smoking prevention programs which backfired because they were perceived as cynically employing reverse psychology to encourage youth smoking, the authors wrote.
Soda companies have taken a page from the tobacco industry's playbook, but gone even further by blurring the line between profits and charity, researchers wrote.
The Pepsi Refresh Project, for instance, funds philanthropic projects that are selected based on votes through Facebook and mobile devices. Users could gain extra votes for the campaign if they purchased certain PepsiCo beverages, according to the paper.
Many soda company social responsibility campaigns, such as the constructing and upgrading of parks, concentrate on the importance of an active lifestyle and downplay the actual role of the soda industry in the obesity epidemic, the authors say.
On Tuesday, the American Beverage Association -- an advocacy group for non-alcoholic beverage companies -- blasted the article and the editorial, saying the journal is failing to acknowledge the industry's efforts in the public health sphere.
Plus, the ABA said in its statement, there is simply no comparison between soda and tobacco -- not among our products, nor our business practices. Tobacco in and of itself is harmful - in any amount; our beverages are not. They can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, active and healthy lifestyle.
Other scientific journals have also taken up the standard of scrutinizing Big Food. Last year, the Journal of Public Health issued a call for papers on the obesity epidemic that focused on the food industry's behavior, rather than looking at individual diet and exercise.
We have come to believe that research studies concentrating on personal behavior and responsibility as causes of the obesity epidemic do little but offer cover to an industry seeking to downplay its own responsibility, editors Anthony Robbins and Marion Nestle -- a guest editor of PLoS Medicine's Big Food series -- wrote in April 2011.
SOURCES: The PLoS Medicine Editors (2012). PLoS Medicine Series on Big Food: The Food Industry Is Ripe for Scrutiny. PLoS Med 9(6): e1001246; Dorfman et al. Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare? PLoS Med 9(6): e1001241.