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Protecting Public Health from Big Food

Threatened by government scrutiny over their exploitative marketing practices, manufacturers of sugary, ultra-processed foods and beverages repeatedly tout self-regulation as a more effective alternative. But both research and experience show that voluntary corporate pledges do not improve public health.

JOHANNESBURG – Food and beverage giant Nestlé recently updated its “responsible marketing to children practices.” As part of its new policy, which takes effect in July, the company says it will limit the marketing of unhealthy and ultra-processed foods to children under 16 and praises itself for being “one of the first food and beverage companies to voluntarily adopt such strict standards.”

Nestlé’s move is not surprising. When faced with the threat of government scrutiny, companies and industry associations often tout self-regulation as a more effective alternative to protect public health. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true. A recent study by PRICELESS SA and researchers at the University of Witwatersrand School of Public Health, for example, reviews 20 voluntary actions by food and beverage companies in low- and middle-income countries and finds that these measures “often aim to protect industry interests rather than improve public health.”

Africa’s ongoing struggle with chronic illnesses underscores the urgent need for governments to crack down on Big Food, as they did on Big Tobacco. Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, and cancer now account for 51% of deaths in South Africa and for roughly 37% of deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of African adults with diabetes, currently at 24 million, is expected to grow by 129% by 2045.