To turn around the public debate about the looming obesity crisis, the food industry needs to be more consistent and display confidence
The government has said the threat of obesity is as bad as climate change. Much of the newspaper coverage made the challenge of obesity sound like new news - when in fact the World Health Organization has highlighted obesity as one of the most serious health problems facing mankind since 1997.
Much of the blame for the looming obesity crisis continues to be laid at the feet of the industry - by politicians, campaigning media and NGOs. In fact, the food industry has largely acted responsibly, reformulating products to cut salt, sugar and fat, increasing choice and cutting out large portions. Our food has never been so clearly labelled and many companies are using their marketing clout to encourage shoppers to "enjoy responsibly".
So how have food companies been recognised for their initiatives? With a ban on so-called junk food advertising. Unfortunately, the industry has done itself few favours. The issue of obesity continues to be discussed in a one-dimensional way. Yes, some companies have been courageous enough to state that food is just one part of the equation, but a more confident and consistent effort is required to turn the public debate around.
With its strong "socially responsible" initiatives but weak public voice, the industry has inadvertently succeeded in reinforcing the wrong public perception that manufacturers are responsible for obesity, which has made regulatory intervention easier.
Scapegoats are convenient. There is no end to what companies can be blamed for. But where is the business voice? Across all sectors, business has taught itself not to fight back, even when under fire. Companies have persuaded themselves that "engagement" means not entering into public debate - meeting high-profile campaigners for "constructive engagement" but later refusing to defend themselves publicly when the same campaigners fire untrue allegations at them.
Engagement has become appeasement. And it isn't working. Polls suggest business is more unpopular than ever. Trust is down 30%-40% - two in every three people do not trust business. And the media is full of reasons why we should be suspicious of the private sector . The industry may say it has a strong voice on issues "behind the scenes", but the public domain is where blame is assigned and reputations are decided.
Obesity requires a multi-layered series of solutions including information and education, physical activity strategies and ensuring people have access to an affordable range of foods .
The industry has an important part to play in tackling obesity through reformulation, NPD and consumer information. It must listen, build bridges and seek solutions. But it must also take a stand where necessary, setting the terms of debate with the authority and assurance that comes from the millions of "voters" - the customers - who buy its products every day.
The government's Foresight Report (published 17 October 2007) and last week's National Obesity Forum (NOF) annual conference can only be adding to the government's pressure. The NOF has warned radical solutions are needed to avoid bankrupting the NHS. NOF chairman Dr Colin Waine said ministers may have to confront the industry to tackle the problem. The food industry must speak up for itself with confidence.n
Eddie Bensilum is a director at Regester Larkin, a specialist reputation risk management consultancy