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The Leading Voices in Food

E141: Gary Sacks on Curbing Corporate Control of the Food System

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
September 22, 2021

Think for a moment about how much influence the food and agriculture industries have over food policy. Too much influence, too little influence, maybe? People look at this in very different ways. One thoughtful voice in this discussion is today’s guest, Gary Sacks, a person who has written extensively on corporate influence on food policy. He has considered corporate control of the food system, running the gamut from global brand consolidation to lobbying and direct involvement in policymaking to actual litigation against country governments, seeking to curb corporate influence. He asks a very key question, is it pastime to question the outsize role of food corporations in our lives? Dr. Gary Sacks is associate professor at the Global Obesity Center at Deakin University in Australia. His research focuses on policies for improving population diets and preventing obesity and he has coauthored international food policy reports, such as the Lancet Commission on Obesity and several reports for the world health organization on obesity prevention.

Gary Sacks is an Associate Professor based at the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, Australia. Gary’s research focuses on policies for improving population diets and preventing obesity. Gary has co-authored several international reports on food policy, including the Lancet Commission on Obesity and several reports for the World Health Organization on obesity prevention. Gary co-founded INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity / non-communicable diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support) – a global network for monitoring and benchmarking food environments. Gary leads the component of INFORMAS dedicated to monitoring the actions of food companies in relation to obesity prevention and population nutrition. Gary led the first-ever studies to benchmark progress on obesity prevention by Australian governments and food companies.

Interview Summary

Let’s start with this question then: what are some of the ways that food companies do influence public health policy in their favor?

We can group those into five strategies. So, the first one is company lobbying of politicians. That’s when they meet directly with politicians or they get involved directly in the policy process, like being on government committees that develop policy. The second one is what we call coalition building. That’s when companies fund charities, build relationships with professional associations and that’s about winning public support and building relationships that makes it hard for governments to regulate. The third category is their influence on research. They might fund research particular topics and they might host scientific conferences and fun prizes and fellowships in the research area. A fourth strategy we’ve seen is legal strategies. That’s when companies might litigate against governments or have influence over trade agreements, which sets the regulatory framework for how markets operate. And the final way is what we call framing the debate. That’s through the way industry talks about things in the media and through their communications. It changes the focus to things that favor the industry. They might shift the blame away from their products and promote individual responsibility for health. So, that’s how we’ve grouped the categories and the ways that food industry influence policy.

So interesting to hear you lay this out and it’s an issue near and dear to my heart and I’m thinking back to a paper that I wrote with a colleague, Ken Warner, an economist at the University of Michigan in 2009, comparing the behavior of the food companies with the tobacco companies. And it was just as said, if you look at the tobacco industry playbook and then put next to it, a list of the strategies of food companies used back in 2009, it was check, check, check, everything was quite similar. It’s interesting to hear an update on that issue. And what appears to have occurred in those years is that some of the same strategies are still being used, but there are even newer ones and that the companies are becoming increasingly sophisticated at doing these things. So, I guess the big question is, what impact do these strategies have and do they actually work?

Well, they do work. Globally, there’s really a lack of action to address unhealthy diets. And yes, there are some success stories, some countries have taken some good actions. But on the whole, across the globe, there’s not enough happening to address the nutrition issues we face and it’s industry’s preferred solutions that have the run. Industry likes self-regulation of things like marketing to kids and product reformulation and they prefer the predominant focus to be on education. So, trying to educate people into what’s healthy. But the public health evidence shows that those strategies alone aren’t enough. We need much stronger government action. And unfortunately, that’s severely lacking.

That is very consistent with the way I’ve seen things too because there are case after case of industry fighting off, needed government actions, stalling thing, planting doubt with respect to the science and taking all these actions that you mentioned that really are having a big impact. And it’s not surprising, government generally doesn’t invest money in an unwise way. And they’re spending, as you said, billions of dollars doing this kind of thing and obviously it’s having an impact and I’m glad that you could point out how. So, what can be done about this?

There are a range of strategies that governments and researchers and health organizations can use to limit the influence of industry. A clear one is to limit industry involvement in policy making. And so, when governments are developing policy, they need to keep industry off the table. While there could be a role to consult with industry about how to implement a policy, they need to get out the policy table, leave that to the public health experts and the policymakers. A second way is much clearer disclosure of lobbying activities and things like political donations. Ideally, with some limits on corporate political donations. Some countries have actually really good disclosure laws, but many countries lobbying is not transparent at all. The third way would be independent funding of research, so that researchers don’t need to take money from food industries and universities and research institutions to have better conflict of interest policies. And that’s just some of the ways, but really, the conflict of interest needs to be front and center of both policymakers, researchers and even media organizations.

Thanks, those are really innovative ideas. And let me talk about one of them in just a little bit more detail. You mentioned that the food industry shouldn’t be at the table when these policy decisions are being made. Now, I know the food industry says, well, wait, we’re that stakeholder here. And you’d like to have stakeholder involvement when you’re making decisions. And also, we happen to know a lot about issues, but they also very often will claim that disclosure is the solution here. As long as we’re transparent about who’s on these committees and who might have industry ties and things like that, we’re okay. Do you think that disclosure is anywhere near a meaningful solution?

No, I don’t. I think disclosure is a start, but actual management of conflict of interest and the risks associated with that needs much more than disclosure. So, as I said, if there’s a policy getting developed that is really about regulating harmful products, it’s a clear conflict of interest to have the makers of those products at the table. And so, stronger steps need to be taken to manage those risks.

That makes sense. So let’s talk about the food industry itself. And I know you’ve thought about the market power that a surprisingly small number of multinational companies can have. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

The factor that enables companies to have an influence is that they have a huge amount of power. Globally, it’s just a handful of multinational food companies that have enormous market power. And that’s grown over the last 30 years through things like mergers and acquisitions and marketing and whole range of strategies companies use to ensure they have this tremendous market power. And so, really, if we’re thinking about limiting corporate influence, we need ways to reduce the power of these corporations. We may need to consider stronger policies around merger control and trading practices that enable these companies to have the sort of power that means they have influence.

It’s interesting to hear that so many companies have become so much bigger over the years and you’re right, that those concentrate power in a small number of hands. So, I know you’ve also thought about the role that investors play in this picture.

Yeah, we’ve seen recently that large institutional investors, so your big hedge funds and big asset managers, are starting to play an increasing role in shaping corporate behavior. We’ve seen examples where these large investors push the companies that they invest in to adopt more responsible practices. And so again, I think if you’re looking at leavers for change, if more of these investors push companies to adopt globally recommended public health measures and I guess, refrain from lobbying against them in the first instance that could be an important lever for change.

That’s a good way to draw this to a close because you’re ending on an optimistic note that if the industries aren’t showing much willingness to do this kind of thing on their own and it looks like, in fact, they’re doing the opposite, investors can have an important role in industry behavior. And it looks like there are more signs of that happening.

We are seeing investors focus on things like the sustainable development goals and really taking a long-term view to what kind of behavior we want companies to have. And I think if those investors take up the challenge of trying to address nutrition issues and engage with companies to push them to take recommended global actions, then we may see some improvements.


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