Supermarkets in Australia have "unprecedented and disproportionate power" in the country's food system, giving them considerable influence on public health, stated the paper in the journal Obesity Reviews.
Based on this, researchers from Curtin University and the University of Western Australia conducted a scoping review on supermarkets' impact on public health.
They assessed 68 peer-reviewed documents on supermarket power and its implications for public health.
They wrote that supermarkets were mainly supported by high market concentration, the authority to set trade terms for suppliers, food system governance through private quality standards, the development of house-brand products, and the ability to frame issues around the identities of food system actors and societal norms.
They added that supermarkets had achieved 'political legitimacy' because consumers and the governments had not questioned their "unelected leadership of the food system".
They further stated that because of this, supermarkets could affect food governance by influencing policymakers and setting private rules.
Apart from policy and regulation, supermarkets were also said to be able to affect the food system through their impact on livelihoods and community sustainability, as well as to influence public health due to their impact on how available, accessible, affordable and sustainable health goods in the country were.
The review identified few positive impacts of supermarkets on public health, one of which is that supermarkets tend to manage the food system effectively to deliver safe, affordable food with minimal government regulation, which presents significant benefit to consumers.
However, the study said supermarkets had a long way to go to help improve public health.
The researchers added that if supermarkets were to make fresh, nutritious food more available, accessible and affordable, they could improve population dietary intake. This is especially applicable to house brands, as supermarkets have control over the nutritional content of their own food items.
Furthermore, since supermarket management decides store locations, it can help to increase accessibility to nutritious, affordable food.
Opportunities with officials
The researchers wrote that the aforementioned factors provide "an opportunity for public health professionals to work with supermarkets to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply", and "many opportunities for improvement in the domains of food governance, the food system and public health nutrition".
They said supermarket house brands should be more comprehensively assessed because of their potential to help improve public health.
They concluded: "Although an enormous benefit of supermarket power has been (the) provision of cheap, safe food, there were few positive impacts identified overall, providing many opportunities for improvement.
To create food environments supportive of healthy choices and improved health outcomes (i.e. reduced obesity, non-communicable diseases and their inequalities), it is important for the power of supermarkets to be transparent, and for them to be held accountable for their impacts on public health."
Source: Obesity Reviews
"What are the position and power of supermarkets in the Australian food system, and the implications for public health? A systematic scoping review"
Authors: CE Pulker, et al.