The Role of Industry in the Future of Health and Nutrition


L-R: Dr Jason Wu, The George Institute for Global Health; Ms Radha Patel, The Futures Company; Mr Patrick Geary, UNICEF; and Dr Jeremy Lim, Oliver Wyman

It is likely, in the future of food, that we will see industry playing a more active role in ensuring a healthier population, says a panel of experts who participated in Food Industry Asia's recently concluded Annual General Meeting.

Speaking on the topic of the Future of Health and Nutrition, the panellists said that while governments have the responsibility to set a healthier food agenda and help drive the delivery of food to achieve social and health outcomes, all other actors, particularly the food industry, have an important role to play.

Protecting children’s rights

Mr Patrick Geary, Corporate Social Responsibility Specialist at the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), focused on the role of government to ensure that businesses respect and support children’s rights. He is part of a global project to evaluate the impact of food marketing on children, which will be published in the latter part of 2016.

“All businesses should use advertising and marketing that respect and support children’s rights,” Mr Geary said, as he described the imperatives to responsible marketing.

Mr Geary pointed out that children’s rights are particularly important for companies to consider when children are the ones consuming the products or services that are being marketed, whether they are targeted or not. This is more important when there is a lack of regulation that provides clear standards for marketing and advertising based on children’s rights or awareness of their needs.

He added that shifting media consumption patterns, the growing commercialisation of schools and play areas, and the exposure to unrestricted content are likewise part of the ever-increasing and evolving exposure of children to more advertisements. The rise of digital advertising has also increased children’s exposure to online marketing, where cutting edge methods are being deployed without a full understanding of their potential impacts on children.

According to Mr Geary, UNICEF looks at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as anyone under the age of 18. At the same time, Mr Geary argued that the question should not only be about age, but about children being able to actually understand the difference between marketing and advertising.

Mr Geary said that UNICEF has undertaken a global research study on marketing and advertising to children to assess the existing legal frameworks, compare across jurisdictions and uncover notable practices. UNICEF’s research shows a strong need for advertisers to go beyond compliance and deepen commitments to children’s rights in marketing. As such, it calls for sound and comprehensive policy commitments that are applied globally, following international standards where suitable national standards are lacking. Advertisers are also called upon to demonstrate how changes in industry policy and practice can improve the impacts of marketing on children.

Speaking to industry executives in the audience, he emphasised that above and beyond wanting to have healthy consumers, employers must remember that children today will also be a part of their workforces tomorrow.

He said, “If you want to have an energetic, dynamic, healthy, well-educated workforce, you need to make sure that children are able to grow up in a healthy way, to fully develop and thrive. It is in everyone’s interest to invest in children and ensure that they have these opportunities from a very young age.”

Mr Geary challenged the members of the audience, saying that right now is a key time for the industry to be able to act and say, “These are things that matter to us; we do want to give healthier options to children and we want to present that in ways that are fair, in order to enable the children to make informed choices.”

Using science and innovation to improve diet

“We do not just count on the industry to unilaterally take the lead because all sectors are together in the fight against the problem of obesity. From an economic point of view, if we have healthier customers, we’ll have a healthier business, too, in the long run,” said Dr Jason Wu, Senior Research Fellow at The George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, Australia.

Dr Wu talked about policies being implemented to impact the problems of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) around the world. He pointed to a number of measures to improve diet and help consumers make healthier choices, within the areas of dietary guidelines and labelling initiatives, in which FIA has been taking the lead on, consumer education and others.

In recognising all the sectors and the roles that they play in these initiatives, it is not surprising that there are now a whole range of policy interventions being considered, such as nutrition standards in schools, labelling to improve the nutrient profiles of certain products, fiscal policies, restrictions on certain products and mandatory and voluntary reformulation.

Reformulation carried out by industry is a promising strategy, in terms of improving diet and the dietary environment. In terms of public-private partnership, reformulation is getting industry to work with the government and academia to identify a set of targets and a timeline, so that food companies can gradually change the health profile of their products.

Looking at food reformulation to reduce obesity, Dr Wu pointed to a study conducted in the United Kingdom, which showed that a gradual reduction of 40 per cent in the sugar content of beverages over five years had a large impact on the rates of obesity and diabetes.

“Even if this is a challenge, this type of intervention can also be seen as an opportunity for the industry to take the lead to voluntarily reformulate to improve their products’ nutrition profiles,” said Dr Wu.

Food and wellness as opportunities for industry

Speaking of opportunities for the industry, the last panellist, Ms Radha Patel, Director at The Futures Company, shared some foresight into the factors that are driving innovation for the future. From her analysis of food trends that reframe the dialogue, Ms Patel centred her talk on the role of food in achieving wellness.

“The growth of lifestyle diseases and their impact on the health of younger and future generations is not our only challenge. Our growing ageing populations also mean that there is a huge imbalance of resources,” Ms Patel noted.

According to Ms Patel, Asian infrastructures and healthcare systems are not quite prepared to deal with older populations. This is an area where food and nutrition become a key mechanism for helping people manage their longevity.

“On the other hand, urbanisation, changing household structures, rising middle class and digital connectivity are all impacting the way people live,” she said. According to Ms Patel, these can also change people’s relationship to food with consumers more conscious about their food, including the ingredients, safety, where things come from and using this information, to make much more active choices.

For the industry, these trends present an opportunity for innovation and leadership because food is seen by many as a route to better health. Some rich spaces for innovation include promoting inside-out vitality, enhancing performance, managing wellness, targeted nutrition, among others.

“Just thinking about innovation and constraints feels like it is a really challenging environment but in those environments come out some of the best innovations, take this opportunity and rethink what you are already doing,” Ms Patel urged the industry.

Prior to the leaders’ debate, the AGM featured a keynote address by Dr Sania Nishtar, Co-Chair of the WHO Report on the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, who encouraged the industry to participate in sustainable value creation. The debate was moderated by Dr Jeremy Lim, Partner and Head of Health & Life Sciences at Oliver Wyman.

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