“Industry has long fascinated PLoS Medicine, but our focus on food is new.” In an editorial today, the editors introduce the PLoS Medicine series on Big Food that includes 8 articles publishing over the next 3 weeks, each critically examining the influence of the food industry in the health arena.
The truth is, the series was almost a year in gestation. As editors we started thinking about the food and beverage industries in early 2011 after it was revealed that the UK government rather shamelessly appointed representatives from the drinks industry to committees determining national public health policy, which led us to write an editorial admonishing medical journals (ourselves included):
If medical journals and public health advocates are concerned with corporate conflicts of interest, inappropriate marketing to children, impotent self-regulation, and general flouting of the rules, why are we ignoring the alcohol industry?
We began to think critically about our role as a journal. Any medical journal editor will tell you that “food and drink” studies get a lot of attention—they’re well read, often covered by the press, and seem to resonate with readers interested in bettering their health and bodies. We realized, though, that our “food and drink” studies tend to focus on personal behaviour as the source of health problems (over/eating, drinking) rather than on the industry behaviour that shapes our food choices and consumption.
So, a series on Big Food was born.
I was delighted when Marion Nestle, preeminent scholar on the topic of food politics whose books and blog continue to track the activities of the food industry, accepted my invitation to serve as guest editor. (There is no relation between Professor Nestle and the Nestlé company, by the way.) Bringing in David Stuckler’s expertise in sociology and the political economy complemented Marion’s nutrition expertise and together we brainstormed ideas and authors.
There was no shortage of topics to address – from the epidemiology of risky foods and the marketing and lobbying activities of the food and beverage industries to the dual crisis of overproduction and food insecurity, functional foods, food safety and environmental issues, as well as engagement tactics with industry. The list goes on and on.
An extra challenge was finding authors from around the world, especially the developing world. Disappointingly, many had already established links with food companies (including some prominent groups, which surprised me)—authors with industry ties were not permitted to write for the series per our editorial policies and the goals of the series.
In addition to perspectives from countries around the world, we are delighted to be publishing contributions from leading scholars in the area such as Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, whose Wikipedia profile describes him as “the rock star of social justice writing” and Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, a frequent commentator on the obesity epidemic who has called the food industry “powerful, pernicious and predatory.”
It’s the great joy of being a general medical editor—I’ve learned so much from our guest editors and authors about the place of Big Food in the health arena, not least that interest and journalism around the subject are growing, and the examination of the role of the food industry is more and more a matter of global health concern. We’re happy to be part of the debate.