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The Food Industry Is Ripe for Scrutiny

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Today we launch a major new series on "Big Food" in the PLoS Medicine Magazine. Over three weeks beginning 19 June 2012 we will publish seven articles that examine the activities and influence of the food and beverage industry in the health arena. These articles were commissioned by the senior Magazine editor (JC) under the guidance of our series guest editors Marion Nestle of New York University and David Stuckler of Cambridge University, and together they represent a multidisciplinary approach to exploring the role in health of Big Food, which we define as the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power.

Industry in health has long fascinated PLoS Medicine but our focus on Big Food is new. Food, unlike tobacco and drugs, is necessary to live and is central to health and disease. And yet the big multinational food companies control what people everywhere eat, resulting in a stark and sick irony: one billion people on the planet are hungry while two billion are obese or overweight.

The time is ripe for PLoS Medicine to shine a light on Big Food. Foremost, large food and beverage companies now have an undeniably influential presence on the global health stage. Whether it's food company executives providing expertise at major conferences and high-level UN meetings (e.g.) or major global health funders lecturing on what nongovernmental organizations can learn from Coca-Cola, the perspectives and experiences of Big Food are shaping the field of global health. At the same time that their expertise is elevated in global health debates, food companies are rebranding themselves as "nutrition companies," offering business acumen and knowledge in food science and distribution, and asserting authority over solutions to problems not just of food production but of malnutrition, obesity, and even poverty. The legitimization of food companies as global health experts is further fueled by the growing number of private-public partnerships with public health organizations, ostensibly designed to foster collaborative action to improve people's health and wellbeing. And yet food companies' primary obligation is to drive profit by selling food. Why does the global health community find this acceptable and how do these conflicts of interest play out?


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