Thursday, February 21, 2013


Is the experience of consumers in rich countries like the US of any guidance to developing countries and emerging economies in the realm of processed food and its relation to citizen's health? One single lesson that may have very high relevance will be to keep away processed foods as being churned out in wealthy countries like the US as much as possible if consumer health is not to be compromised. If over weight, obesity, CVD, cancer, blood pressure and other life debilitating illnesses are any indication of the health of a nation, developing countries are much better off, probably because of relatively low intake of commercial foods from the industry as a part of their diet. It is now being reported that giant food companies that control almost in fifth of world market for processed foods are feeling the pinch in expanding their business in most wealthy countries with practically zero population growth and almost saturated markets. To overcome the present business stagnation, multinational companies are targeting countries like China, India and other neo-economic powers to make their over riding presence in the coming years. Here is a take on this disturbing development which must concern all those interested in safeguarding their health.

Moodie and colleagues say that the food and drink industries should be treated like the tobacco industry - as companies with too much of a vested interest in the sale of unhealthy products to help curb the epidemic of disease. They must have no role in the formulation of national or international policy, they say. "Regulation, or the threat of regulation, is the only way to change these transnational corporations. The industry must be put under pressure if it is to change." The researchers were unable to find any health benefit to industry involvement in voluntary regulation or public-private partnerships. Industry documents, they say, reveal how companies shape public-health legislation and avoid regulation. They build "financial and institutional relations" with health professionals, non-governmental organisations, and national and international health agencies, says the paper. They distort research findings and they lobby politicians to oppose health care reform. Huge multinational companies dominate sales worldwide. "The frequently used term 'competitive market' suggests a wide variety of traders; however, the most powerful corporate sectors of the world's food system are increasingly concentrated to the point of oligopoly. "For example, in the USA, the 10 largest food companies control more than half of all food sales. Worldwide, this proportion is about 15% and is rising rapidly. More than half of global soft drinks are produced by large transnational companies." The multinationals are now moving in on the developing world, the researchers say. "Saturation of markets in high-income countries has caused the industries to rapidly penetrate emerging global markets, as the tobacco industry has done. Almost all growth in the foreseeable future in profits and sales of these unhealthy commodities will be in low-income and middle-income countries [where consumption is currently low]."

Recent aggressive action of multinationals like Walmart and others in gaining entry to India is primarily due to the above perception and it is sad that pliable governments are succumbing to this strategy without realizing the long term consequences of allowing these predators into their country. In theory there is no harm in providing a free environment to all players engaged in food manufacture but in practice food ventures need large investments and gestation periods to become viable. Most local entrepreneurs with limited resources are bought out eventually creating a virtual monopoly shared by a few foreign players. With weak kneed safety policing regime in countries like India, these MNCs become "Lord of all they purvey" with no control on them! It is time people hold the government and the governing class responsible for such unhealthy policies and bring some sanity in promulgating consumer friendly policies.


No comments: