Many recommendations to food companies regarded as simple have turned out to be complex, requiring deeper insights into the limitations of science, the role of supply chains and commodity prices, farmers, retailers, and of consumer behavior. For instance, there have been calls for food companies to lower the level of saturated fats in the oils they use as a means of reducing cardiovascular disease risks. Implementation of such a call is not easy. With the price of palm oil relatively cheap, customer affordability makes it more difficult to build a case for use of alternative oils with improved fatty acid profiles. Further, the inherent productivity of palm versus sunflower and other oilseeds favors palm. Sudden switches from one oil to another oil in a manufacturing process is unrealistic and in many instances, undesirable. Rather, a well-structured long-term plan is required and includes investing in a range of oils that can meet large scale supply demands, supporting research to reduce the saturated fat levels of commonly used edible oils, reviewing pricing and subsidies for oils, and shifting palm oil use from unsustainable to certified sustainable sources. The recent announcement by Unilever to distance itself from a major palm-oil producer discovered to be clearing protected rainforest is a positive case study of such change. Building a future supply of more suitable oils is especially important in countries like China and India where consumption has soared in recent decades.
Food companies face challenges outside of their control that influence their ability to design more food and beverage choices that contribute to healthier eating and drinking. Global environmental changes will affect crop availability: India's weakest monsoon in almost four decades has damaged rice and oilseed crops, while cold weather and drought in China may shrink soybean and corn harvests. These environmental disruptions will impact the cost of commodities. In sub-Saharan Africa, all countries surveyed by FAO reported higher domestic rice prices in 2009 than 2008, while 89 percent reported higher prices for maize, millet, and sorghum. Continued environmental pressures, increased global consumption, and the use of crops such as corn and soybean for alternative fuels will continue to hamper the efforts of food suppliers. There is also concern that the amount of meat consumed in developing countries is growing - in the past year, growth has been three times higher than in developed countries. Meat-based diets require more energy, land, and water resources than vegetarian, meaning that the rise of meat consumption will exacerbate resource scarcity for grain and crop production.
A further constraint in improving global nutrition is the lack of capacity in nutrition science. Emerging economies are beset by dual burdens of under- and over-nutrition crises. The human capacity to address these needs is weak, and evident when studying nutrition output from researchers. The proportion of full-length publications in leading science and medical journals (based on citation indexes) by country of the first author, nutrition topic, and year was examined from 1991-2007. For the last 2 years, only about 5% of first authors for any nutrition category were from India or China - two countries that account for 40% of the world's population. This weak public sector nutrition science creates serious obstacles for corporate innovation.
Greater R&D intensity is one route to the disruptive innovation critically needed in the food industry. R&D intensity is a well-established indicator of industry innovation. The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry has consistently ranked highest for several years by this indicator (spending about 15-20% of sales on R&D), while the food industry is typically among the lowest spenders at 1-2% of sales. Even among government institutions the exact total percentage spent on food-based solutions, while hard to calculate is likely to be small. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) holds the majority of US government research spending on nutrition and obesity at roughly 1.4 billion and 700 million, respectively. They fall short of the levels provided for research related to infectious and emerging infectious diseases, bioengineering, and others. Further, the major outcomes of NIH nutrition and obesity research often lead to new medication or surgical solutions as opposed to sustainable food-based solutions. This mismatch between where R&D resources are spent contrasts with recommendations of a global and diverse set of experts who have identified the top 20 policy and research priorities for chronic diseases, a number of which involve food and nutrition policy. A significant increase in publicly financed research into food- and lifestyle-based solutions to chronic diseases would stimulate innovation among private and public researchers and implementers.
Public calls for food companies to adopt certain standards when implementing self-regulatory systems
Potentially some of the greater challenges facing food companies are the levels of mistrust aimed at corporate entities. Brownell and Warner recently proposed recommendations for responsible corporate food practices. In a related article Sharma et al called for a set of standards to be adopted by food companies as they implement self-regulatory systems. PepsiCo believes that several suggestions made by the authors have merit and should be implemented within food and beverage companies. As Sharma stated, food policies and standards should be science-based and draw upon the findings of major scientific bodies such as IOM in the US and WHO globally. Brownell and Warner are correct in that there is a need for greater transparency with respect to industry funding for and relationships with scientists.
In addition, better codes should be developed for lobbying and advocacy. PepsiCo acknowledges that there will be real differences of opinion between advocates within and outside of industry that should be respected and debated on the basis of their overall public benefit. There are many areas of uncertainty when it comes to developing nutrition policy, which require experimentation and diverse approaches. Nowhere is this truer then with respect to obesity. Scientists and policymakers have yet to find large-scale examples of what works well to reduce obesity at the population level and most clinical studies demonstrate that early weight changes are not sustained beyond a year.
As Brownell et al said, that there is a need "to combine personal and collective responsibility approaches in ways that best serve the public good." The value of self-regulation is especially great in countries with weak to absent government regulatory capacity. Food companies are increasingly making public pledges with respect to reformulation goals, marketing restrictions to children, and labeling. Independent audit bodies should monitor pledges with the results placed in the public domain. For example, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) is using the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJ) as an auditing body. This partnership between industry, non-profits, and educators aims to reduce obesity in the US by 2015 and will have each of its platforms independently evaluated by RWJ. In addition, companies are subject to many independent monitoring schemes that include the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the Global Reporting Initiative. Their reports to the investor and business community create incentives for positive corporate behaviors while being critical of others not valued by shareholders and long term investors.