An unhealthy dose of corporate meddling

Tony Abbott is minister for women and the junk food industry is running the health portfolio. All that’s left to complete the picture is for Ivan Milat to be bumped into the tourism department.

The office of the Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash – appointed after The Hamburglar declined the role – has unwittingly revealed itself to be in the pocket of the junk food industry. Just hours after it went live, the office killed off a healthy eating food-rating website which had been two years in preparation.

The orders came from Nash’s Chief of Staff, Alastair Furnival, who, it turns out, is married to the owner of lobby group, Australian Public Affairs (APA). APA represents the Australian Beverages Council, the soft drink industry group, as well as Mondelez, the parent company of Cadbury, Kraft and Oreo. Despite initial denials, the Assistant Minister’s office later admitted that Furnival was in fact a co-owner of APA.

But this isn’t just your garden variety corporate cronyism – like Rupert Murdoch getting $900 million pocket money from the federal budget or energy industry CEOs being appointed to the renewable energy review panel, for instance.

These latest revelations involve some of the most unscrupulous corporate interests being put ahead of what, in any decent society, should be the most important consideration of government – workers’ health and well-being. We are literally being denied heath information at the behest of the junk food industry.

Diet related health conditions are a key factor in mortality in Australia. Heart disease, which has long been linked with poor diet and obesity by the Heart Foundation, is the single largest cause of death in Australia. The second is cancer; also a disease which scientists agree is often associated with obesity and poor diet.

The practices of the food industry, much more than the habits of ordinary people, are the key cause of poor diet and obesity. Manufacturers add copious amounts of sugar and salt to food to entice consumers and raise profit margins. This has a detrimental effect on the health of poor and working class people. But human health comes a distant second to the primary consideration of market share and investment returns.

Of course healthy food is available, but remains out of reach for many. Australian National University scientists recently estimated that a low income household would need to spend 50 percent of its income on food in order to comply with national dietary guidelines. This is untenable and compares with a figure of just over 9 percent of total income for those who are well-off.

Fast, cheap, sugar soaked and nutrient poor foods marketed to the low-paid and over-worked are frequently consumed instead, with terrible consequences for health.

This wholly preventable state of affairs continues because the food industry, especially the junk food industry, profits from it. Some nutritionists argue that the industry should, and one day will, be seen as big tobacco now is – as merchants of death, knowingly profiting from human suffering.

But despite its central role in deleteriously affecting human health, the food industry currently bears none of this stigma. Instead, it is embraced by the establishment.

Until very recently, Sugar Australia was a corporate governor of the Sydney University Nutrition Research Foundation. This is the Foundation which happens to be the main source of research purporting to “show” that sugar consumption (which in Australia is as high as four times that recommended by the World Health Organisation) is not connected to obesity and has no detrimental health effects.

The sugar industry also has an enormous influence on trade policy and strong ties with the National Party. The federal government has consistently refused to restrict junk food marketing to children, despite extensive lobbying from public health organisations.

This should come as no surprise. Sugar is Australia’s second largest export crop. It matters to Australian capitalism that sugar consumption doesn’t drop and that demand for this lucrative product is maintained. The food industry furthermore accounts for 20 percent of manufacturing sales and services income in Australia, which gives its concerns a powerful weight in the eyes of profit-oriented governments.

Capitalist ideology has it that competition, the market and production for profit facilitate the best outcomes for society and those in it. The fact that the profits of the food industry depend on people consuming unhealthy food that compromises their health and life expectancy, and that governments encourage this, is a compelling argument to the contrary, and an illustration of the fundamentally anti-human nature of the capitalist system.