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How is Big Food violating our right to nutritious food?

by Tania Griffin

The pilot episode of a new series, Chew on This, by the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) has launched this month with a focus on how major food corporations are impacting consumers’ rights to nutritious food.

The first episode, “How is Big Food violating our right to healthy food?”, sparks a crucial debate on the pressing issue of the operations of ‘Big Food’ and its impact on public health, food justice and consumer rights.

Hosted by Crystal Orderson, an acclaimed South African journalist with over two decades of experience, the episode brings together leading experts in economics, food policy and the law: Nzama Mbalati, acting interim CEO of HEALA and social activist; Sasha Stevenson, executive director from Section27; Nomonde Buthelezi, a food activist, urban farmer and co-founder of Food Agency Cape Town; as well as Mervyn Abrahams, programme co-ordinator of Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity.

“We want to draw attention to the aggressive marketing strategies employed by Big Food corporations,” says Mbalati. “These corporations often prioritise profits over public health by promoting ultra-processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat, particularly targeting vulnerable populations such as children and economically disadvantaged groups, which exposes them to life-altering conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

A recent study by Public Eye, a Swiss investigative organisation, found that Nestlé – the world’s largest consumer goods company – adds sugar and honey to infant milk and cereal products sold in South Africa and many other developing countries on the continent and Asia. This is contrary to World Health Organization guidelines aimed at preventing obesity and chronic diseases, which say no added sugars or sweetening agents should be permitted in any food for children under the age of 3.

The panel discussion looks to the Constitution, within which the right to food is enshrined – a right that is undermined by the industry-driven overconsumption of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods consumed by many because they are cheap. “The conversation highlights the impact of Big Food on public health, particularly in driving obesity and related health problems, especially among vulnerable populations,” says Stevenson.

“Food prices have become unaffordable, and that forces low-income households to go for the cheapest foods available,” says Abrahams. “And, of course, the cheapest foods available are the foods with the highest sugar content.”

The series highlights the need for evidence-based policies and regulations as a means of change. The panel discusses the various interventions needed to solve the problem, including government regulation of the food industry, such as warnings labels, taxation of sugary drinks, and ensuring access to affordable nutritious foods. They emphasise the role of the government in providing access to healthy food through initiatives like the National School Nutrition Programme and supporting local food producers.

“Health taxes could be used to alleviate the financial burden on households caused by high food prices,” says Mbalati. “It’s essential to enhance our tax frameworks to create a stronger safety net, ensuring households can afford food and receive necessary relief.”

The show takes viewers across the country to look at the challenges faced by people in several communities. For example, Siyakholwa Nkoka, a 30-year old shopper from Khayelitsha, Western Cape, on a limited budget, and 60-year-old Mkhipheni Mkhize from Hammersdale, KwaZulu-Natal, a fruit seller struggling to sell healthy produce, highlight the urgent need for systemic change. Rising food prices and limited income push many toward cheaper, unhealthy options.

“The government has to keep investing in a health system that becomes more and more strained because of the impact of what people are eating,” says Buthelezi. “We also need to make sure people can access healthy food, and that is the important balance that needs to be achieved. There’s an opportunity for the state to do its job in achieving that balance.”

The panellists underscore the importance of public support and political will in implementing policies that prioritise nutrition and support local food systems. They emphasise that a healthier South Africa is achievable through collaborative efforts to address food insecurity, promote nutritious diets and ensure food justice for all citizens.

“The series delves into the socio-economic impacts of these practices,” says Mbalati. “It considers how they affect small farmers and the environment and link these factors back to consumer rights and public health.”

HEALA and its communication partner, Community Media Trust, aim to use this series to encourage widespread dialogue that promotes a more equitable food system that improves how food is produced, marketed and consumed. 

“Our hope is that by exposing these practices and promoting informed discussion, the series will contribute to a movement toward a more equitable and health-conscious food system,” concludes Mbalati.

View the first episode here and follow #chewonthis on social media to be a part of the conversation and hear more about when the next episode is set to launch.

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