Latest news: 10 November 2014.

The public health sector should engage with the food industry – but not all food companies are worth a conversation, says food system investigator Professor Sharon Friel.

Professor Sharon Friel

Professor Sharon Friel

She was commenting on a recent presentation by Professor Diane Finegood, who said that public health needed to engage with the food industry if it was going to successfully tackle the complex obesity epidemic.

Professor Finegood, President and CEO of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, delivered the keynote address at The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre’s Investigators Forum in Sydney recently.

She said food consumption was clearly linked to food production, but the deep divide between public health and Big Food deterred dialogue and action.

She spoke about an initiative in Canada that attempted to build trust between public health and private industry, including companies such as Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s.

Professor Friel, Professor of Health Equity at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Australian National University, is leading an Australian Prevention Partnership Centre research project that is examining system factors, such as the relative lack of availability and affordability of healthy food compared with highly processed foods, that contribute to Australia’s growing diet-related health issues of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

She says the food industry is diverse, with many companies producing nutritious food, but there are also many companies that produce “energy-dense, nutrient-empty foods”.

“I can see little point in engaging with a company like Coca-Cola because it produces a product that has no nutritional value – there is nowhere to go in a conversation about that product.”

Professor Friel questioned what engaging with the food industry means: “Does that mean the food industry should be at the table with policy development?

“No. For example, internationally, the food manufacturers and retailers have dragged their heels on mandatory front of pack food labelling – widely regarded among public health nutritionists as the preferred health policy option,” Professor Friel says.

“Based on that type of track record we don’t want them at the policy table, but we do want to engage with them in terms of the implementation of the policy.”

By Marge Overs, Communications Manager, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre

• Read about the work of The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre