Healthy Living Alliance: Study on political strategies of SA's food and beverage industry

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In the first study of its kind, researchers have uncovered the variety of strategies used by the food and beverage industry in South Africa to negatively influence policies aimed at promoting health, including building relationships with South African government departments.

The article by lead author Dr Mélissa Mialon of the University of Sao Paulo in the International Journal of Public Health (29 July 2020), maps additional major industry interference techniques which include lobbying government officials, influencing scientific research, and attempting to refocus policy issues by diverting attention away from the role of unhealthy products which contribute to ill health.

“Industry’s corporate political activity influences public opinion and potentially hinders proven health policies to reduce diet-related conditions such as obesity and diabetes which are so prevalent in South Africa,” said Dr Mialon.

Over 4m people in South Africa live with diabetes, which is emerging as a major risk factor for severe COVID-19 disease and death, and nearly 70% of women and 40% of men in the country are either overweight or obese.

The researchers found a total of 107 examples of political practices from publicly available documents from January 2018 to April 2019 from ten major food and beverage entities (Tiger Brands, Pioneer Foods, Clover, Parmalat, Nestlé, Coca-Cola South Africa, the South African Sugar Association (SASA), the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA), the Beverage Association of South Africa (BEVSA) and the International Life Science Institute (ILSA)).

These practices included partnerships between industry and government departments such as the Department of Basic Education, the Department of Sport & Recreation, and the Department of Health on company-branded school breakfast programmes, the donation of sugar to food security efforts, and educational funding for students. Industry was found to engage directly in policy processes, including heavy lobbying against the sugar-sweetened beverage tax. A total of 51 examples revealed how industry reframed arguments to divert attention away from the role of unhealthy products in health, and 49 cases of industry building partnerships with third parties to influence health policy efforts.

The authors could find no details about conflicts of interest of government officials or information on interactions and correspondence between industry and government officials.

At the World Health Assembly in 2019, the South African delegation called for urgent action to respond to what it called the ‘commercial determinants of health’ – corporate activities that affect health – which includes corporate political activity of the food and beverage industry.

“It is critical that there is greater knowledge, transparency and monitoring of industry strategies and practices,” the researchers conclude.

“This study reveals the range of tactics that South Africa’s food and beverage industry deploys, putting profits before people and undercutting critical public health initiatives. To have over 100 examples, and only those publicly available, means this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. It highlights the urgent need for transparency to expose undue influence on public health policy,” said Lawrence Mbalati of the Healthy Living Alliance.

“South Africa needs transparency mechanisms to restrict the food and beverage industry’s influence on policy issues, including policies to ensure interactions between industry and government officials are transparent, and in certain cases prohibited, particularly during the policy decision stage. The health of South Africans cannot be put further at risk,” he said.

Objectives: To identify the corporate political activity (CPA) of food industry actors in South Africa.
Methods: We studied the CPA of ten different food actors for the period Jan 2018–April 2019. We used a systematic approach and existing framework to collect and analyse information available in the public domain, including material from the industry, government, academia and civil society.
Results: Food industry actors in South Africa established multiple relationships with various parties in and outside the South African government. These included interactions between large food companies and the Department of Basic Education, the Department of Sport & Recreation, the Department of Health, and the Department of Agriculture. In addition, the food industry-sponsored community programs, with a focus on poverty alleviation and undernutrition. Moreover, food industry actors influenced science were directly involved in policy-making and helped frame the debate on diet and public health in South Africa.
Conclusions: It is crucial that there is increased transparency, disclosure, and awareness of industry strategies, and that mechanisms to address and manage industry influence are strengthened in the country.

Mélissa Mialon, Eric Crosbie, Gary Sacks

Issued by Health Living Alliance (HEALA)


International Journal of Public Health abstract

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