Friday, July 20, 2012


At a time when governments world over are trying to wean away their citizens from health damaging foods through persuasion and policy orchestration, food industry seems to be moving in the opposite direction seducing the consumers with more and more unhealthy products to enrich themselves. A few restraining policies such as limiting the sale of large volume beverages or taxing high sugared products do not seem to be working as anticipated and world is at its wits end regarding viable options to curtail consumption of such foods and protect the denizens. Though Americans are considered the most visible practitioners of junk food eating which has made their country the Obesity capital of the world, other countries are also fast "catching up" in this mindless rush towards morbidity. Well, one may ask what connection Olympic games has to to do with food and health? There is a connection which is manifested in the recent meeting of the London Assembly which called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to shun sponsorship money from two of the biggest financial supporters of Olympic events because of the latter's identification with unhealthy foods world wide.

The oft repeated question regarding the health quality of foods catered by the processing industry and the food caterers is whether they are really responsible for all the diseases related to food consumption and till to date there is no conclusive evidence to support such an accusation. It is very true that during the last 6-7 decades the healthiness of industry processed foods has declined dramatically and what the ancestors of the present generation ate 100 years ago has no resemblance to what is eaten to day. The nutrient density of a food depends very much on the extent of good ingredients like fruits, vegetables, coarse grains, herbs and spices, type of sugar, type of fat etc that go in the making of a consumer product. If consumers are blaming the food industry for less than satisfactory quality products being churned out, there may be a grain of truth and the tendency on the part of the industry to expand its portfolio of "bad" foods because of higher profitability considerations may eventually attract a backlash from the consumers as well as the government agencies. The day is not far off when the industry is going to be shackled by regulatory policies to restrain it from flooding the market with foods which are rich in bad sugars, bad fats and bad salt.

The personal freedom guaranteed by constitutional rights in many democratic countries gives a fairly liberal leeway in doing many things which would be punished under despotic regimes but such freedom is not unlimited. Reasonable restrictions are necessary to curtail freedom for the benefit of the society as a whole. Therefore when voluntary restraints fail, mandatory restrictions are imperative. This is how various measures being considered to bring a modicum of discipline to the food sector must be considered. If tobacco consumption leading to cancer can be curtailed through regulations and if alcohol consumption is taxed heavily in the interest of a healthy society, why not adopt similar measures that can slow down the consumption of calorie dense foods also? A valid question with lot of logic behind it and people at large must encourage their governments to put in place such restrictive policies without  seriously affecting the bottom line of the investors who deploy their capital in food ventures. It is in this context that the recent directive by the London authorities to the IOC to exclude two of the biggest junk food peddlers in the world from sponsorship denying them the much sought after visibility that is so essential as a part of their big blitz marketing strategy.

Where ever people gather there is always the opportunity for vendors to make money by selling what ever the participants want. It is too common that most festivals and carnivals all over the world provide an apt platform for selling merchandise in a massive way by the manufacturers of consumer products. This short duration but high intensity selling spree is very profitable and food vending is no exception to this truth. Food is an integral part of any gathering and bigger the size of the crowd better will be the business for the vendors. Invariably catering and vending rights at such organized events are restricted to a select few based on the highest bids. Whether it is a theater, sports meet, ball game like foot ball, base ball, basket ball or cricket, temple festivals or carnivals, substantial crowd is guaranteed and the organizers do not allow any food to be brought into the area of activity, giving monopolistic power to a chosen few only, with no control on quality, price or safety of foods offered. Look at the forthcoming Olympics in London scheduled for July 22 to august 12 this year organized by the IOC when about 10000 athletes from more than 100 countries are expected to participate with millions of spectators and billions of TV viewers on the sidelines as audience. The visibility one can get by associating with such an event is mind boggling and no cost is considered too high to have such an audience. Here is where the big fish of food industry are playing their strategy game to influence the eyes, minds, brains and the body of the massive audience to further their pursuit of high returns by selling their much maligned wares-the junk foods!         

The paradox in this development is that London won for the third time the right to hold the Olympiad on the promise of delivering a "legacy of more active, healthier children across the world" and there for it will be ironical if this event is going to be dominated from the sidelines by those who are notorious for their past record of enticing kids to patently unhealthy foods across the world. IOC has long term sponsorship relationship with one of the two food giants under the scanner since 1928 while the other started coddling up to IOC since 1976 and snapping such a connection now may have logistical and ethical connotations. Typically Olympic games are organized based on definitive budget and more than 40% of the money comes, amounting to almost a billion dollars, from industries who sponsor or support the games. Though these food giants are putting out all types of promises to cater only healthy foods, it may be too far fetched to depend on such assurances looking back at past their track records. A pertinent question is whether the IOC has the courage to stipulate that foods served within the games venues should have certain features like imposing upper limits for salt, sugar and fat besides conforming to all safety specifications of UK food safety authorities? If this happens the event will be remembered as the healthiest Olympic games ever organized on this planet.   


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