New York Times op-ed writer Mark Bittman, in a column titled “Parasites, Killing Their Host,” considers how “‘Big Food’ is unwittingly destroying its own market. Diet-related Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease disable and kill people, and undoubtedly we’ll be hearing more about nonalcoholic steatophepatitis, or NASH, an increasingly prevalent fatty liver disease that’s brought on by diet and may lead to liver failure.” He refers to recently published research by a George Washington University associate professor of sociology discussing how corporations have adopted a strategy to increase their legitimacy in the “community” effort to address the obesity epidemic and thus continue to sell products that promote ill health. Bittman concludes, “government’s rightful role is not to form partnerships with industry so that the latter can voluntarily ‘solve’ the problem, but to oversee and regulate industry. Its mandate is to protect public health, and one good step toward fulfilling that right now would be to regulate the marketing of junk to children. Anything short of that is a failure.”
Appearing in Social Currents, the article by Ivy Ken examines the activities of two corporate-affiliated organizations—the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) and Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG)—and posits that the food industry has adopted a strategy of seeking legitimacy and community good will by inserting itself into the public effort to address obesity. Ken contends that the effort involves framing the issue as a problem that corporations have nothing to do with but can solve by working together with stakeholders in a “community,” becoming even more engaged with children through their schools, and selling more products.
According to Ken, these organizations have turned “overweight and obese people into idiots” by claiming that kids and families must be inspired to make healthier choices and food companies will make it easier for them to do so. She asserts that “[b]y co-opting the language of community and the core framing tactics of [social movement organizations], the AHG and PHA have created powerful messages that have already been linked to increased sales and profits for their corporate partners.” Ken concludes that these coordinated framing efforts “reveal that they know what is really at stake: involvement in our actual communities,” and suggests that they also reveal corporate “desperation.”
She writes, “[T]hey reveal how desperately they need to maintain legitimacy in an environment in which actual community groups are demanding limits to their involvement in the chain that supplies food to children.” She calls for not letting corporations set the agenda or write the terms and for forcing them to earn a place at the table by “not producing fat-, sugar- and salt-laden products, not doing market research to find out how much unhealthy food eaters will buy, and not placing maximum profits ahead of the maximum health of communities.”