Obesity, International Food and Beverage Industries, and Self‐Regulation: The Fragmentation of Information Strategies

AuthorJørgen Dejgård Jensen,Karsten Ronit
Published date01 September 2015
Date01 September 2015
Obesity, International Food and Beverage Industries,
and Self-Regulation: The Fragmentation of
Information Strategies
Jørgen Dejgård Jensen and Karsten Ronit
This article explores how large international companies in the breakfast cereal, snack, and beverage
industries address the issue of obesity, and how their strategies are governed by various forms of
self-regulation. In a f‌irst step, we study websites of ten companies and identify f‌ive different
dimensions: (i) mission statements, (ii) educational commitment statements, (iii) nutrition labeling,
(iv) marketing code of conduct, and (v) education initiatives aimed at professionals. Based on a
coding of these activities, we conducted hierarchical cluster analysis and selected f‌ive case companies
for in-depth investigation. This analysis reveals different types of self-regulation strategies, ref‌lecting
differences in levels of commitment and instrumentation. Some companies pursue defensive
strategies, some with an element of “blame-control,” whereas others adopt offensive strategies to
promote their products. Differences in market communication strategies can be attributed to
variations in product portfolio and market orientation, and can also be seen as attempts to forestall
public regulation.
KEY WORDS: food industry, obesity, information strategies, self-regulation
Over recent decades, obesity has emerged as a serious lifestyle disease in
Western societies and in a growing number of developing countries (United
Nations, 2011), with inappropriate diets identif‌ied as one of the key factors
causing obesity (WHO, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2014). Economic and social factors are
key determinants for the obesity epidemic—factors that together constitute the
“obesogenic” environment and create an unhealthy environment for adults and
children alike (Lobstein & Dibb, 2005). Such factors may, for instance, include the
physical and economic availability of products, the sociocultural norms structur-
ing eating habits, and the access to relevant and reliable information. Generic
health and nutrition information is often provided by government authorities.
Health and nutrition are entangled issues (WHO & FAO, 2003), and public
agencies have taken up the task of informing consumers to empower these as
World Medical & Health Policy, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2015
1948-4682 #2015 Policy Studies Organization
Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ.
actors in the marketplace. Much nutrition and health information related to
lifestyle diseases, however, is also provided by the food and beverage industry, in
terms of advertising and production promotion activities, product labeling,
lifestyle recommendations, and public statements. Because of the obesity epidem-
ic, the role of the food and beverage industry is facing signif‌icant challenges
(Caballero, 2007; Grow & Schwartz, 2014; James, 2008; Yach et al., 2010). Hence,
given the pressures by national governments, intergovernmental agencies, and
consumer groups—e.g., statements like “the food industry can play a signif‌icant
role in promoting healthy diets” (WHO, 2012)—and the ultimate risk of new and
stricter rules being imposed through public regulation, business is challenged to
take preemptive action, e.g., by demonstrating its capacity to maintain high
standards in responsible information dissemination regarding nutrition and
health in various self-regulation schemes. Under self-regulation, companies or
industry associations commit themselves to comply with self-stated standards in
their relations with consumers, and they formulate these commitments in specif‌ic
programs, such as codes of conduct. They def‌ine ways to achieve this regarding,
for example, marketing activities or information dissemination, and thus commit
themselves to observing not only public regulation but private standards as well.
To different degrees, the companies also report on these activities and try to show
how they comply with their various commitments. There is, however, a risk that
the voluntary standards adopted by companies and industries are low and that
they will not be correctly implemented, if not monitored and scrutinized by other
parties (Ronit & Jensen, 2014). Many food corporations are transnational and face
different regulatory environments in different countries or jurisdictions. Studies
show that there are differences in public regulation between the United States
and Europe (Vogel, 2012), and also that there is a preference for single-f‌irm action
in self-regulation rather than coordinated industry action in the United States,
although industry initiatives are found here as well. European industry initiatives
have def‌ined higher minimum standards and are followed closely by the
European Commission. The EU-Pledge, establishing common nutrition standards
on advertising to children, was encouraged by the Commission and adopted in
2007, and in 2008 the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA) adopted
similar standards at the global level as a response to WHO encouragement. These
industry initiatives show that the political and sociocultural environment has an
impact on where they emerge and how they expand. These initiatives have
worked to both achieve goals and to forestall government intervention, and it is a
contested political issue how much pressure public institutions should put on the
industries. There is an awareness of the pitfalls of private regulation, but in
general political attention is directed at the industry as such and not at individual
f‌irms. New initiatives, such as the Access to Nutrition Foundation, are emerging
to monitor and report on the behavior of f‌irms in the food and beverage
industries; this organization has launched the Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI,
2015), but it is still too early to evaluate these efforts.
Companies operating in many countries have incentives to be offensive in
inf‌luencing market communication standards to the maximum possible extent,
Jensen/Ronit: Obesity, International Food and Beverage Industries, and Self-Regulation 279

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