The food industry has a responsibility toward people regarding nutrition-related health problems and should be addressed on the subject, as per the conclusion of Tjidde Tempels. On November 13, he obtained his PhD from the Philosophy Group for his research into business and public health ethics.
The Pringles slogan is: ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop.’ – one of the many examples of stimulating unhealthy behaviour. Is that the proper message? Should a producer want people to keep on eating?
Is this responsibility on the food industry’s part a recent notion?
‘Health used to be seen primarily as a responsibility of the government and the individual. But nowadays, the role of the food industry is under scrutiny, as many companies contribute to the increase of ailments such as obesity through the production and marketing of unhealthy products.’
But aren’t companies about making a profit?
‘Certainly, but companies should find a balance between their economic and societal responsibilities. In practice, we currently see an ambiguity of sorts, where companies promote health while at the same time doing things that undermine it. In my thesis, I investigated which moral reasons exist for companies in the food industry to address food-related health problems. Because companies should also base their behaviour on basic moral principles such as: do no harm, respect autonomy and justice.’
How could companies take their responsibility?
‘They could do so by considering the dietary reference intake when developing new products, or by encouraging healthy choices through nudging, for example. But not marketing unhealthy products to children and no longer lobbying against laws that could improve public health could also have a great impact. The industry has already started doing that in part, but that does not mean there is nothing left to improve. In addition, this is currently seen as something that companies do as an extra, while it is rather something they are morally obliged to do.’
What about consumers and the government?
‘It’s a shared responsibility. Ideally, the industry would take measures without any external pressure. And only if that proves to be insufficient, it would be up to politics. The government can also investigate how it could help companies to make a healthy transition, by ensuring a level playing field, for example. Because individual companies could develop healthier products, but those ethical leaders would have a disadvantage if other companies still move in to fill the gap in the market of cheaper, unhealthy products. Consumers will not immediately renounce unhealthy products, of course, and they must be able and allowed to make that assessment themselves. However, research has also revealed that not all food choices are a completely based on rational considerations and that people can be limited in their options to make a healthier choice. We often miss the social context in which individuals make their choices. Healthy products are often more expensive and less available. People who have limited finances also experience more stress, which makes informed choices harder to make.’
Is that focus on health not patronising?
‘Would one’s autonomy as a consumer be put under pressure if the industry collectively decides to stop offering unhealthy products or nudges toward healthy products? Possibly. But if we accept that we live in a world where we are guided and influenced by marketing anyway, then I think this would be a better alternative than manipulation towards unhealthy choices. Whether it is morally desirable and how far it should be allowed to go is something that I did not investigate further.’
And there are also heavy discussions about what is healthy or unhealthy?
‘Correct. Unhealthy products are usually not directly harmful to health and should be viewed in the context of one’s diet. In addition, food also has added value in social and cultural aspects. Suppose that I would cook my grandma’s apple pie recipe for the family a year after her passing, this would remind us of her. That also has value; life is not just about health. This socio-cultural role of unhealthy food should be investigated further from an ethical point of view.’