PepsiCo’s announcement that the company will invest another $5.5 billion in India by 2020 – to manufacture and sell more junk food to Indians – does not bode well for the long term public health of the country.
India is a developing country with many genuine development needs, and meeting some of these needs requires investment. However, the manufacture and consumption of more junk food such as potato chips and high sugar beverages – PepsiCo’s portfolio – does not bring development.
In fact, quite the opposite.
The large scale consumption of junk foods has created a public health crisis in a number of countries as more and more people globally become obese and are affected by obesity related diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
The financial and social costs of an obesity epidemic and the resulting health problems are enormous.
For India, a growing obesity problem is sure to further burden an already overstressed and under-funded public health system in India, as well as adversely impact the quality of life of millions.
More junk food is not something India can afford, nor should it encourage.
Although India lags behind many other countries when it comes to the consumption of junk food, policy makers must learn from the experiences of others when it comes to junk food so that decisions regarding investments can be made judiciously.
The United States, one of the largest consumers of junk food, is also one of the most obese countries in the world. Ten years ago, the US Surgeon General characterized childhood obesity in the US as an epidemic and squarely laid the blame on unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical activity.
Things have undoubtedly gotten worse. In a remarkable opinion in 2010, two top retired US Army generals labeled childhood obesity as a threat to national security because “27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24 – were too overweight to serve in the military.” The generals called upon Congress to pass legislation that would, “Get the junk food and remaining high-calorie beverages out of our schools.”
And in recent findings that must give us pause, for the first time in modern history, children born today in the US are likely to live shorter than their parents – because of obesity.
Surely this is not progress. India must take heed and commit to not going down the same path.
In the US, and generally in the industrialized countries, the consumption of soft drinks are on the decline as consumers become more aware of the negative health impacts of junk food such as those sold by the likes of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle and others.
City after city in the US is trying to introduce higher taxes on high sugar beverages in order to pay for the increased health costs and deter consumption. School districts across the US have removed junk food and high sugar beverages from the reach of children. Such initiatives, including a recent one in New York city torestrict “supersized” drinks, are being met with a well-funded beverage industry lobby.
However, it is only a matter of time before high sugar beverages and other junk foods are regulated and taxed – both to pay for the public health costs associated with their consumption as well as to curb their consumption, particularly by children. This is similar to the manner in which the tobacco industry has been regulated in the US and other countries, with significant success.
Attempts to regulate and rein in junk food are not isolated to the industrialized world alone.
Mexico is arguably the most obese country in the world. Not coincidentally, Mexicans are the largest consumers of Coca-Cola in the world.
Mexico just passed a sugar tax just last month, a one peso per litre tax, to curb the consumption of sugar beverages. Mexico also passed an 8% junk food tax on products such as candies, chips and high-calorie foods.
The US Food and Drug Administration, also last month, has taken action to completely remove trans fat from food products in the US because of health reasons.
So while there is a growing movement globally to regulate, tax and generally limit the intake of junk food, including in the US where PepsiCo is based, the Indian government’s move to welcome such a substantial investment by PepsiCo in junk food is indeed perplexing.
The Indian government’s consent to PepsiCo’s investment seems to be driven by a blind faith that any and all foreign investment is the panacea to the challenges being faced by the nation.
In this instance, unfortunately, the policy makers are also blind to the massive repercussions of allowing such an investment. PepsiCo’s investment in India will cost the nation more than it is worth.
Junk Food Companies Pledge to Reduce Calories and Fight Obesity in US While Ramping up Their Presence in the Developing World
Last month, in a bid to preempt any binding government action, sixteen food and beverage companies announced a pledge to reduce 1.5 trillion calories from their products in the US by the end of 2015 -- ostensibly to fight obesity in the US.
Indeed, the growing obesity epidemic in the US has caught the attention of the White House, and Mrs. Michelle Obama in particular.
The announcement by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation - -- comprising some of the largest food and beverage companies in the US -- came just five days after the release of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President, part of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move campaign designed to address the growing obesity epidemic in the US.
The White House Task Force report and its recommendations suggested that unless the industry made significant changes in the way it markets unhealthy junk food to children in the US, government policies could be introduced to make them do so.
Whether the announcement by the companies -- which is short on the details -- is a genuine commitment to reduce obesity or a public relations maneuver to appease Mrs. Obama and the White House remains to be seen.
What is significant, however, is that the fast food industry in the US and its role in marketing and selling unhealthy junk food to Americans is being widely accepted as a big part of the problem of the obesity epidemic in the US.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of American children are overweight or obese, and consequently, at high risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
The obesity epidemic has become so alarming in the US that it led to more than 130 retired generals, admirals and senior military leaders to frame the issue as a national security threat, writing that, "Obesity rates threaten the overall health of America and the future strength of our military."
Consumers in the US are slowly becoming more nutrition-savvy -- increasingly reading food labels and rejecting high-fat, high-sugar and highly processed products. Much more needs to be done however, to contain the abundance of cheap and empty calorie intake which is ubiquitous in the US food landscape today.
Mrs. Obama's focus on the food and beverage companies is not the first. It bolsters the efforts of New York city, which has been a leader in campaigning against trans fat, then high sugar beverages, and now sodium. And California has not been far behind, banning the sale of high sugar products and other junk food in public schools, for example.
So it comes as a major disappointment that while companies like Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Nestle, Kraft Foods and the like have pledged commitments to reduce calorie intake and fight obesity in the US, these very companies are extremely busy ramping up their presence in the developing world, and China and India in particular.
Pepsico just announced a $2.5 billion investment in China to increase its beverages and snacks industry. Earlier this year, Pepsico announced a $200 million investment in India to expand operations. Coca-Cola announced an additional $250 million investment in India in 2008 to build more bottling plants and increase its market share. McDonalds just announced an additional $20 million annually to open 30 outlets each year in India.
Rapid expansion in the emerging markets may make good business sense from the perspective of these companies. Consumers in the US and other mature markets are becoming increasingly savvy to the negative health impacts of these products. And these companies are struggling to grow in the developed economies.
But if high-fat, high-sugar and highly processed foods are bad for the health of Americans, are they any good for people in India and China?
The answer, obviously, is a clear no.
Increasing investments in the developing world by these peddlers of junk food is a clear case of double standards. While these companies are pledging to reduce calories in the US to tackle obesity, they are simultaneously expanding their markets -- with junk food -- in the developing world.
Junk food is the last thing that China and India need -- both countries are already experiencing startling growth in obesity and related health problems.
A recent government survey in India found that more than 20 percent of urban Indians are overweight or obese. And India was, until recently, the diabetes capital of the world, according to the International Diabetes Federation, only to be overtaken by China.
China is also experiencing a rapid rise in obesity. Today 30 percent of Chinese adults are overweight or obese, compared with 25 percent in 2004. "More than 92 million Chinese adults suffer from Type-2 diabetes, caused mainly by a high-calorie diet and sedentary lifestyle, according to a study in the March 25 New England Journal of Medicine. Based on this data, the International Diabetes Federation in Brussels estimates close to half a billion Chinese will have the disease in 2030."
Although one cannot blame the rise in Western junk food as the sole or even primary reason for the alarming rates of obesity and related diseases in China and India, it is clear that adding more high-fat, high-sugar processed foods in these markets will significantly worsen the problem.
It also makes absolutely no sense for already overburdened public health systems in India and China to be inundated with more junk food related illnesses as the result of an expanded western junk food regime that have been found to be central to the growing obesity epidemic in the West.
If these food companies were serious about the social responsibilities that they so often tout, they would approach the growing obesity rates in India and China just as they have pledged to do in the US -- by not adding any more calories and in fact, reducing calories in the developing countries.
It will be the right thing to do.
People's health and people's lives in developing countries are as valuable as in the US.
So why the double standard?