I have no time for governments that try to fix every problem with a new law, cannot resist intruding into personal freedoms, or are too weak to force people to take responsibility for their own actions. Heaven knows, business is already bogged down in too much costly, unnecessary compliance.
But there are times when governments need to regulate more, to protect consumers and the community, and rein in companies that aggressively pursue profits at the expense of corporate social responsibility.
Take fast food as an example. Watching cricket on the weekend meant being pounded with ads for KFC’s Double Down Sandwich and Pizza Hut’s new hot dog stuffed crust range – two extreme-fat products that are slightly more appealing than eating a cricket bat. In spite of all the evidence about a worsening global obesity epidemic, these and other fast-food chains insist on taking poor nutrition to new levels.
Some marketing practices are more subtle. One chief executive of an emerging chain told me this year his company spent great time testing their chips on teenagers, to win some of the lucrative after-school fast-food market. Another told me years ago that their company’s best-selling item was fat-dripping meatball sandwiches for teenage boys, even though the chain promoted a fresh-food image. Surely all those ads for “loose change” menu items are just designed to get kids into stores after school.
It’s a shame that some fast-food brands seem intent on adding ever-fattening items to their menus, and expect the community to pick up the tab for obesity-related health problems. I’m sure these and other chains will point to healthier items on their menus (I know there are a few), but offering unnecessary products with sky-high calories, the likes of which have not been seen before, is reckless.
What’s next: deep-fried biscuits and ice-cream, double-crusted pizzas and chocolate sundaes with bacon shavings for topping? Don’t laugh. These products already exist overseas and it won’t be long before they clog arteries here. Surely there’s a point where governments have to step in and deem certain fast food products as unsafe if their makers continue to ignore community concerns about obesity.
To be fair, the fast food industry has had some good initiatives in recent years, such as healthier choices added to the menus of McDonald’s and other large chains, and communicating calorific intakes for fast food items prominently at point-of-purchase. It’s amazing how seeing the calorie count on a burger or pizza can turn you off buying it, or encourage healthier menu options.
Chains such as Domino’s Pizza have introduced healthier choice options, and the emergence of better-quality fast food chains, such as Grill’d and Nando’s and Salsas, is a welcome trend. Some bigger companies, such as Coca-Cola Amatil, have genuinely good corporate social responsibility programs, although more can always be done.
Also, there are many causes of obesity beyond a poor diet: lack of exercise (for example, watching instead of playing cricket), biological and socio-economic factors, and bad parenting in some instances. Other retailers contribute to the problem. It’s hard to get out of a supermarket without having junk food thrust at you at the end of shopping aisles or through checkouts. And yes, no one forces people to eat this stuff and a little bit of junk food is OK in moderation.
Surely the main issue is about balance. Fast food companies rightly want to maximise profits for their shareholders, and no one wants to be told what they can and cannot eat, or have their hand held by governments. But companies selling this stuff need to show they are responsible and conscious of community concerns, lest governments and councils eventually have to regulate/tax more to stop reckless fast-food industry practices.
When you see products such as double-decker chicken sandwiches, hot dog stuffed pizzas, and all the other extreme-fat products on the way, one has to conclude the balance is out of whack and some fast food companies are incapable of self-regulation and showing commonsense. No doubt they will complain the loudest when governments, faced with ever-rising health costs, take tougher action against the bigger contributors to obesity.
Latest figures are frightening. The Economist this week reported that 36 per cent of US adults and 17 per cent of children are obese, and that nearly half of all Americans could be obese by 2030 if current trends continue. Many others are overweight, rather than technically obese. There’s no way governments can fund the incredible costs in coming decades from obesity-related illnesses.
The best response is for more fast-food companies to show it is possible to make decent profits while giving customers healthier food choices and greater dietary information – and that they do not need extra regulation to behave responsibly. The good work in this industry is being undone by too many fast-food laggards that ignore the obesity problem in developing and, increasingly, emerging economies.
This is my last blog for 2012. Many thanks to all the readers who commented on The Venture this year. Have a safe and happy festive season. The Venture returns in late January.