Health and Well-Being: Who Is Responsible?
By Siân Astley
This is one in a series of “P3FC” articles (People, Planet, Prosperity and the Food Chain), essays and comments from assorted authors. All articles in the series will address the challenges of food production to communicate best practices in the industry and encourage the adoption of sustainable policies. All authors are food professionals coming from diverse employment sectors and from around the globe. The goal of P3FC is to help create a global food supply chain that takes into account the well-being and prosperity of people and the planet.
Safe, nutritious, affordable food is a global human right. In many countries, food safety requirements are legally defined and enforced, albeit to different degrees. But who is responsible for the nutritional content of our food and eating habits? There are those who would argue that we (the consumer, the individual) are solely accountable for our dietary and lifestyle choices.
But how many of us really understand the complex physiological and psychological relationships we have with our food? Can we resist the ancient drive for sugar and fat wrapped up in seductive modern advertising? Should children be protected from harmful marketing strategies by parents or companies? Additionally, what impact do our eating habits have on the environment we live in, globally?
There are, of course, others involved in this complex relationship between the consumer and the consumed. But the roles and responsibilities of food manufacturers and retailers are ambiguous. For a business, the bottom line is profitability—especially for shareholders—but increasingly businesses are expected to demonstrate corporate responsibility for their customers’ health and well-being as well as the environment. They must decide whether own-brand and budget lines and branded and luxury products are equivalent in all but price or whether and what compromises are acceptable in achieving reduced costs or added performance (e.g., taste or potential health benefits). Cheap, energy-dense but low-nutritional value foods are widely consumed but contribute disproportionally to chronic diet-related ill health among poorer consumers who find it difficult to access better-quality foods and follow public health recommendations. At the other end of the social scale, little if any consideration is given to the merits of over- and underconsumption of more expensive functional foods by worried-wealthy-well consumers. Few understand how these products work, and fewer still the need to consume the recommended portion(s) to achieve the desired outcome.
Most manufacturers and retailers accept they are responsible for the resources they use (e.g., land, water, energy, people). However, many consumers also want the food industry to be accountable for food waste, packaging, fair trade and healthy eating; some businesses have altered or publicized existing business practices to take advantage of this movement. As one of the largest private-sector employers, and with consumers spending in excess of €1 billion on food annually in Europe alone, the food industry needs to address consumer demands for cheap food in the knowledge that these come with the expectation that food is also safe and nutritious.
Siân Astley has worked extensively with individuals and organizations throughout Europe from a variety of disciplines, including food and biotech industries and the media. She is the author of more than 300 popular science articles as well as 25 peer-reviewed papers and was awarded her diploma in science communication in 2009 (Birkbeck University of London). After 14 years as a bench scientist, she became Communications Manager for NuGO, one of the first FP6 Networks of Excellence. She is currently the European Communications Manager for the Institute of Food Research in Norwich (UK), supporting scientists to communicate their EU-funded research around the world, and is a member of the P3FC Editorial Board. She can be reached at +44 1603 255219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.