Food companies not doing enough to fight obesity — report

Thursday, 05 April, 2018

Food companies not doing enough to fight obesity — report

Are Australia’s biggest food and beverage manufacturers fully committed to promoting nutrition and tackling obesity? A new report by Deakin University said there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Focusing on 19 companies with the biggest market share, the ‘Inside our Food and Beverage Manufacturers’ report gave each company a score out of 100 according to the publicly available information on their policies and commitments to prevent obesity and encourage nutrition. These included: corporate strategy, product formulation, nutrition labelling, promotion to children, product availability and affordability, and relationships with external groups.

The scores ranged from a mere 3 out of 100 awarded to Parmalat, to as high as 71 out of 100 for Lion Dairy & Drinks. Other frontrunners included Nestlé with 69, closely followed by Unilever at 68. Fonterra, on the other hand, achieved 51 and released a statement regarding their nutrition efforts in response to the report. After explaining its commitments to improving nutrition through varied product offerings, the launch of its Global Nutrition Guidelines and the fact it responsibly markets and labels its dairy foods, Fonterra admitted it is actively looking to make improvements in some areas.

"While we have taken firm action to help improve the health and nutrition of our Australian consumers, we acknowledge the opportunity for us to be more transparent in our nutrition policies and initiatives."

Associate Professor Gary Sacks, lead author and Research Fellow at Deakin’s Global Obesity Centre, said most companies (16 out of 19) showed good progress in their corporate strategy, acknowledging their responsibility in improving the diet of the population, as well as showing some commitment towards achieving these goals.

"The areas of strongest performance included companies reporting some action to reformulate products to make them healthier, and an increasing commitment amongst companies to implement the Australian Government-endorsed Health Star Rating food labelling system," he said.

"Food and beverage manufacturers need to implement a broad range of actions to contribute to societal efforts to prevent obesity and improve population health."

Sacks noted that the societal impact was only part of the issue, and many companies fail to recognise the business implications associated with the failure to implement these health policies.

"For food companies, this is not just about social responsibility, it's also about long-term business sustainability. Investors are increasingly focused on company contributions to the health of all Australians, and how this links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nutrition is considered a component of all 17 of these goals."

Three particular areas that the report suggested the companies prioritise were: to stop promoting unhealthy foods to children; set targets and timelines to reduce added sugar, salt and saturated fat; and commit to implementation of the Australian Government's Health Star Rating.

Sacks explained that efforts to reduce marketing to children are voluntary and unsuccessful, so more effective policies need to be implemented to bring about change. Going forward, the report highlights the importance of monitoring the implementation and progress of company policies and commitments.

"Their current promises are full of loopholes. While they promise not to directly target children, this doesn't prevent unhealthy food advertising in prime time when the highest number of children are watching.

"Some companies also promise not to sponsor 'children's' sporting events, but that still doesn't cover the major professional sports, like the AFL, that are extremely popular with children and families," said Sacks.

This report was the first to scrutinise and rank the efforts of the largest Australian food companies, and follows a similar report on Australian supermarkets earlier this year. A stronger focus on nutrition is necessary considering the fact that 2 out of 3 adults and 1 in 4 children in Australia are overweight or obese, and the report aims to help create a better food environment to tackle this issue.

The data collected in the report was assessed using the 'Business Impact Assessment - Obesity and population nutrition tool' developed by INFORMAS, a global network of public health researchers that monitors food environments worldwide.

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