An uncomfortable liaison
United Nations organisations are more commonly embracing public-private partnerships with the food industry to address global hunger, micronutrient deficiencies, food insecurity and even to reverse rising rates of global obesity and lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
However, this practice is making some public health advocates uncomfortable.
These include Deakin University Research Fellow, Vivica Kraak, and her PhD supervisors at Deakin’s World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre on Obesity Prevention - Professor Boyd Swinburn and Associate Professor Mark Lawrence - along with Dr Paul Harrison from Deakin’s School of Business.
They are expressing caution and emphasise that these partnerships must be transparent and very clear about the terms of engagement among UN organisations such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and transnational industry iconic brands including Nestle, The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s Corporation and Yum! Brands.
“There are examples of positive collaborations and strategic alliances currently underway that involve government, UN multilateral organisations and food industry firms to address environmentally sustainable food packaging or poor nutrition," Vivica Kraak said.
"Yet some in the public health and nutrition community are sceptical about governments and the UN system over-relying on market-driven solutions to address formidable public-health nutrition challenges that are on par with global climate change."
Kraak and her academic team published a lead article in the December 2011 issue of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition’s SCN News special issue on Nutrition and Business: How to Engage?
The SCN is an international forum that promotes cooperation and harmonises nutrition-related activities across all UN organizations.
Their paper examined the accountability of public-private partnerships with food, beverage and restaurant companies to address global hunger, under-nutrition and obesity.
In the paper, Kraak and her collaborators found that an estimated US $20 billion dollars annually is needed to tackle both global malnutrition and to prevent rising obesity and NCD rates. They acknowledge that public-private partnerships are a potential way to raise visibility about these pressing issues and to also generate vital funds or in-kind donations to address these problems.
Yet partnerships with food industry have been criticised for ineffectively managing inherent conflicts of interest and failing to establish mechanisms to protect public health goals from being co-opted by commercial interests.
“It’s hard to argue against UN organisations or NGOs partnering with McDonald’s Corporation, PepsiCo or Kraft Food to provide funds or expertise to address global hunger, vitamin A or iron deficiencies worldwide, or even to help international NGO such as Save the Children or the Red Cross International respond to nutrition-related emergencies such as the Indonesian tsunami or the earthquake in Haiti,” said Kraak.
“At the same time evidence suggests that these companies are not making substantial changes to their product portfolios to cut out fat, sugar and salt in processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, and they are not implementing comprehensive approaches to market healthy diets to children and adolescents worldwide even though these companies have been implicated in fuelling the global obesity pandemic."
Many transnational companies continue to lobby governments to reject legislating taxes on unhealthy foods or beverages and have spent millions of US dollars and European Union Euros to oppose government initiatives to implement traffic-light labelling programs on food products.
“Their strategies are reminiscent of how tobacco companies acted decades ago before they were sued through the US Master Settlement Agreement,” said Professor Swinburn, who is Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention.
The UN Global Compact was launched in 1999 at the World Economic Forum as a way to stimulate private sector actions to support UN goals and serve as an alternative to international regulatory systems.
The Compact is the largest corporate citizenship initiative in the world that promotes 10 voluntary principles of responsible corporate citizenship to support human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption.
Kraak and Deakin collaborators examined the signatory status of 15 global food, beverage and restaurant companies with UN system organisations to the UN Global Compact and voluntary corporate responsibility programs such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).
They found that the Compact and the GRI lack explicit principles supporting consumer health, and do not hold food companies accountable for their collective actions to promote good nutrition and wellness. While seven companies are signatories, eight transnational food and restaurant companies are not signatories to the Compact, including McDonald’s Corporation and Yum! Brands, which have partnered with UN organisations.
The researchers developed a benefit-risk decision making pathway tools for prospective partners to assess partnership compatibility before engaging with industry that is published in the October 2011 issue of Public Health Nutrition.
They also recommend that partners adopt systematic and transparent accountability processes to balance private commercial interests with public health interests, manage conflicts of interest, ensure that co-branded activities support healthy products and healthy eating environments, comply with ethical codes of conduct, and monitor and evaluate partnership outcomes.
Vivica Kraak, Professor Boyd Swinburn and Associate Professor Lawrence plan to share further research findings about the corporate responsibility programs of global food, beverage and restaurant companies at the forthcoming World Public Health Nutrition Association Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from April 27-30, 2012.