Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia, Global Obesity Centre Senior Research Fellow Associate Professor Gary Sacks told us that his team reached this conclusion after using the Business Impact Assessment on population nutrition and obesity (BIA-Obesity) tool to assess the commitments of food companies in Malaysia - the first ever assessment of food company nutrition policies in Asia.
The assessment covered 22 major food and non-alcoholic beverage manufacturers, five quick service restaurants and six retailers via publicly available information that was assessed by an Expert Panel against BIA-Obesity scoring criteria.
The research team concluded that the nutrition commitments of these companies were ‘weak’, ‘generally vague’ and ‘non-specific’, despite current government action plans in place [Malaysia’s National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia (NPANM) III 2016–2025] and industry self-regulation approaches and commitments.
“The study included those food companies with national, regional and global presence and with the largest market shares in Malaysia,” Prof Sacks told us.
“An example of what we mean [by their commitments being ‘weak’, ‘non-specific’ and ‘irregularly reporting’] are that companies often do not provide specific reduction targets for nutrients of concern (such as sugar and sodium). Instead, they only say things like ‘We are committed to reducing sugar content’, with no indication of what that means, what their target level of reduction is, what time period they will make reductions over, etc.
“Sometimes they also only make commitments in relation to selected products, and do not have commitments across all products or product ranges.
“Furthermore, some transnational companies make commitments at the global level, but they do not specify whether those commitments apply to Malaysia or what actions they’ve taken in Malaysia. They also don’t provide follow-up on how they are progressing on their commitments, eg. through annual reporting.”
Of the 22 F&B manufacturing firms evaluated, Nestle received the overall highest weighted score with regard to their nutritional commitments – but even this was just 60/100, and relied strongly on its corporate strategy element (85/100).
It also scored highest in terms of product formulation (66/100), nutrition labelling (57/100) and promotion practices (51/100), but very low in terms of healthy product accessibility for consumers (21/100).
With even the highest-ranked company on the list unable to score more than 60%, Prof Sacks expressed concern over solely relying on voluntary commitments in this area.
“We have seen that in countries where there is greater ‘threat’ of government regulation, and more pressure from the public health community for companies to take action, companies typically respond by making some additional voluntary commitments. If they did so in Malaysia, company scores would improve,” he said.
“However, evidence from around the world shows that voluntary commitments are not likely to be strong enough to result in meaningful public health benefit, and so strong government regulation is likely to be required.”
Even more concerning is that the median overall weighted score for F&B manufacturers came in at just 14%, with none of the other firms being able to score above 50% apart from Unilever (52/100). Third-ranked was Dutch Lady (48/100), followed by Mondelez (44/100), Coca-Cola (43/100), F&N (38/100), Fonterra and Kellogg’s (both 26/100).
At the bottom of the list were local companies such as Ramly (1/100), Hup Seng (3/100), Massimo and Ayamas (both 5/100)
Commitment and action
When asked about how often these commitments are likely to translate into actual action, Prof Sacks stressed the importance of monitoring, and that commitments remain an important first step no matter what.
“Company policies and commitments are often the first step towards company action. We need increased monitoring of company commitments to ensure that they translate into action – this monitoring needs to be conducted by independently appointed auditors,” he said.
“Governments create the regulatory environment in which companies operate and so they are best placed to intervene. The public health community and the media also have important roles in keeping the pressure up on food companies and holding them to account for their contribution to unhealthy diets and obesity.”
One other party to be considered here is the investment community, which has the ability to potentially control company priorities.
“Large investors can potentially be very powerful if they threaten to divest from companies that are proving harmful to the health of the community. However, investors have not currently taken very much action in this area,” he said.
Malaysia has one of the highest obesity and non-communicable disease (NCDs) rates in South East Asia, and the Global Burden of Disease estimates that ‘dietary risks’ for NCDs account for 14.6% and ‘high body mass index’ accounts for 9.9% of disability-adjusted life years in the country.
“Unhealthy diets and obesity are a major public health problem in Malaysia. If food companies do not change their actions, the long-term health of Malaysians will suffer and this will have enormous costs to the health system,” Prof Sacks stressed.
“For industry, in the long run it is not sustainable to continue to heavily produce and promote unhealthy food to Malaysians.”
Moving forward, the team has plans to conduct more BIA-Obesity studies in other Asian countries over the next few years, but hopes that based on these findings, Malaysia will look at using a better accountability framework such as BIA-Obesity to ‘monitor and benchmark company action’, as well as implement government regulation.
“This study has shown that Malaysian food companies have a lot of scope for improvement, especially with respect to companies in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand,” said Prof Sacks.
“Increased monitoring of food companies is likely to result in some improvements in the short term. However, in the long term, strong government regulation is needed to improve the healthiness of the food supply.”
Source: Globalization and Health
“Benchmarking the transparency, comprehensiveness and specificity of population nutrition commitments of major food companies in Malaysia”
Authors: Ng, S., et. al.