Debating Big Food’s Role in Fighting Obesity

Who wins when public health fights Big Food? It’s too soon to call that battle, but in a debate held recently between Kelly Brownell, who heads the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, and Derek Yach, who has held leadership roles at the World Health Organization, PepsiCo, and the Vitality Group, a South African insurance company, both sides spent some time holding their opponent to the ropes.

The debate, held in New York, was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The proposition they debated: “There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the food and beverage industry’s interests and public health policy interests on obesity.” What the debating parties didn’t realize, at least until the end, was that the proposition was taken almost word-for-word from the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control International Treaty, the only changes being “food and beverage industry” substituted for “tobacco industry” and the addition of “on obesity.”

Brownell said the food and beverage industry can never be trusted to participate effectively in the fight against obesity since doing so conflicts with their raison d’être: selling as much food as possible. Yach, who argued for more interaction between the food and beverage industry and public health policymakers, said the food industry is already changing and cited the rapid share increase of low- and mid-calorie Pepsi beverages over the past five years.

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