Confusion can land revolutionaries in a soup

Is Jamie Olivers food revolution a marketing tool or a public health campaignJamie Oliver/Facebook
news Monday, May 23, 2016 - 15:02

By Chitra Subramaniam and Dr. Franklin Apfel*

Jamie Oliver, the internationally renowned Chef will be speaking to health ministers and heads of state today to warn the world of too much food on one side (obesity) and too little on the other (malnutrition). “Access to good, fresh, nutritious food is every child’s human right but we are currently failing our children…we need to unite as one strong, single voice to force governments and businesses to create a healthier, happier world for the future, he has said.” Ahead of the 69thsession of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) annual assembly which begins today, Oliver has taken to Twitter and Facebook to reach out to US President Barack Obama, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister James Cameron among other leaders. Watch him here.

The issue is a grave one. Estimates show that currently 2.5 billion people struggle with obesity while some 800 million go hungry. Micronutrient deficiency, which typically affects children, costs the world $2.1 trillion. These numbers are not new. Neither are the conspicuously absent questions on the part of lawmakers. Are lifestyle health conditions like strokes, cancers and diabetes also marketed diseases like tobacco-related ones?  Will open democracies with free media allow their children to starve to death?

“There is no question that Jamie Oliver is genuinely working to safeguard the right of every child to health and we applaud him for that. Jamie is an unusual individual who is also part of a business,” says Patti Rundall, OBE, Policy Director of the UK-based International Baby Food Network IBFAN. “We must not let our admiration for his work confuse our thinking about for-profit businesses in general. There are scores of food corporations that are just waiting to ‘help’ WHO by ‘advocating’ good practice under the guise of their favourite marketing tactic - Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and public-private partnerships (PPP). Poor diet is now the biggest underlying cause of ill-health and disease globally – these corporations are the very ones that are causing the problems the WHO is trying to tackle and are fighting the adoption of the very legislation that Jamie is calling for,” she added.

This week the World Health Assembly (WHA) is discussing the Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors (FENSA) to determine how the WHO – the world’s highest health policy setting body – will interact with small and large businesses. If the FENSA is adopted as is, private sector companies will be placed on an equal footing with public interest bodies including NGOs and civil society. Public health advocates are pointing out that FENSA fails to recognise their very different roles and purpose. “Unless changed FENSA will legitimize lobbying by business associations at the WHO governing bodies and could undermine the credibility, independence and integrity of the WHO, “ Rundall told The News Minute (TNM).  In short, big business and big money could directly influence global health policy direction. The WHO is strapped for cash – the offer is more than tempting. Language in resolutions can hide the elephant in the room.

At the start of this WHA, Oliver has invited people to become part of his global Food Revolution. You are faced immediately with a disquieting option as you click on Oliver’s invitation to join his Food Revolution. You are invited to “UNTICK this box if you DO NOT agree to your data submitted here being disclosed to and used by the Jamie Oliver Group of companies (which include any body corporate in which Jamie Oliver has a direct or indirect business interest) for the purpose of sending you by mail recipes, news, offers or promotions and other information from the Jamie Oliver Group. If you agree, such information may be sent to you directly by the relevant Jamie Oliver Group company.”

When does marketing stop and public health advocacy commence or vice-versa? Oliver is being transparent. However, his invitation runs the risk of creating a welcome confusion for people and corporations who are seeking WHO backing to market disease-causing foods and beverages. This debate is something which neither the WHO not multinational corporations have addressed squarely and firmly. They should not hide behind the very good intentioned and committed Jamie Oliver.

*Dr. Apfel a medical doctor and public health advocate is Managing Director of the UK-based World Health Communications Associates (WHCA)