Corporate political activity of the processed and fast food industries in Australia
Total revenue across the fast food and takeaway service industry in Australia was $20.1 billion in 2018–19
There are parallels between the corporate political activity of the food and tobacco industries
Industry-funded research is used to shape the evidence base
Sponsorship of sporting clubs is a tactic used to win public favour
The food industry can be defined quite broadly as any business enterprise involved in the production of food – including agricultural producers, manufacturers, retailers and restaurants.1 This section will mainly focus on major processed and fast food companies in Australia, due to their influence in shaping global and local food systems (for more information see The obesogenic environment: how did we get here?)
To provide a sense of the main processed and fast food industry players in Australia, a snapshot of the snack food manufacturing; chocolate and confectionery manufacturing; and fast food and takeaway service sectors is provided below.2
- The snack food manufacturing industry in Australia produces products such as potato chips, savoury snacks, nuts, and muesli and protein bars.3 Total revenue across the industry in 2018–19 was $1.7 billion, with annual growth of -0.5% from 2014–19 estimated to increase to 1.2% in 2019–24. The industry is moderately concentrated with the largest players PepsiCo Australia New Zealand Holdings Pty Ltd (39%) and Consolidated Snacks Pty Ltd (18.4%) accounting for more than half of market share. PepsiCo's brands include Doritos, Smith's, Red Rock Deli and Grain Waves; while Consolidated Snacks' brands include Cheezels, Samboy, Kettle and the Natural Chip Company.
- The chocolate and confectionery manufacturing industry in Australia produces confectionery, chocolate and cocoa products.4 Total revenue across the industry in 2019–20 was $5.8 billion, with annualised five-year growth of -0.6% forecast to reach $5.7 billion in 2024–25. Concentration in the industry is low and the top three players are Mondelez Australia Holdings Pty Ltd (13%), Mars Wrigley Australia Holdings Pty Ltd (9%) and Nestle Australia Ltd (8%). Mondelez brands include Cadbury and the Natural Confectionery Co.; Wrigley brands include Mars Bar, M&Ms and Starburst; and Nestle brands include KitKat, Smarties and Allen's.
- The fast food and takeaway service industry in Australia produces fast food such as burgers, pizza, sandwiches and sushi for immediate consumption.5 Total revenue across the industry in 2019–20 was $16.9 billion, with annualised five-year growth of 3.1% forecast to reach $19.7 billion in 2024–25 . The industry is moderately concentrated and the top three players are McDonald’s Australia Holdings Pty Ltd (21.7%), Domino's Pizza Enterprises Limited (8.4%) and Competitive Foods Australia Pty Ltd (7.5%). Competitive Foods operates in Australia through its Hungry Jack’s brand.
Professor Marion Nestle in her book Food Politics argues that diet is inherently political, given disputes about what people should eat and who gets to decide what is 'healthy'. She writes that such disputes "inevitably involve struggles over the way government balances corporate against public interests ... They are revealed whenever a company attacks its critics as 'food police' or justifies self-interested actions as a defence of freedom of choice. They are expressed whenever food companies use financial relationships with political leaders and nutrition and health experts to weaken the regulatory ability of federal agencies and whenever they go to court to block unfavourable regulatory decisions."6
Major processed and fast food industry players use various tactics to influence public policy in ways that favour their business interests. Where successful, this influence can jeopardise the development and implementation of policies that effectively safeguard public health. Researchers have drawn parallels between the activity of the processed food industry and the long-running corporate political activity of the tobacco industry.7
Big Food and Big Tobacco
Until the mid-2000s, Philip Morris was one of the biggest food companies in the world after acquiring General Foods Corporation and Kraft Foods Inc. during the 1980s.8
Coca-Cola Amatil began life in 1904 as British Tobacco Company Limited before expanding into the Australian food and beverage industry in the 1960s, notably with the purchase of Coca-Cola Bottlers Pty Ltd in Perth.9 The company sold its tobacco interests in 1989,10 when US parent company the Coca-Cola Company became the major shareholder and the company name changed to Coca-Cola Amatil.
In other links between food and tobacco, Rothman’s Pall Mall (Australia) acquired Allens Sweets in 1985.10 Tobacco company R.J Reynolds merged with Nabisco (brands include Ritz crackers and Oreo cookies) in 1985 before the companies were split in 1999.11
Drawing on a framework used to classify the tobacco industry’s methods of exerting political influence,7 there is evidence of food industry actors using similar approaches in Australia, as shown below.
|TOBACCO TACTIC||FOOD INDUSTRY EXAMPLE|
|Information and messaging (lobbying, framing, shaping the evidence base)||Mars-sponsored research suggesting that cocoa can reduce cognitive decline in older adults|
|Financial incentives||Donations to Australian political parties by peak processed food membership body, the Australian Food and Grocery Council|
|Constituency building (seeking to gain the favour of public opinion and other stakeholders)||McDonald’s sponsorship of children’s sporting clubs, including as a major sponsor of Little Athletics and by providing branded sporting equipment to children’s community soccer, basketball and AFL clubs|
|Legal strategies||The Australian Food and Grocery Council lobbying to influence trade agreements so they are more favourable to processed and semi-processed foods|
|Policy substitution (proposing alternatives to regulation such as voluntary initiatives)||Self-regulatory codes on unhealthy food marketing to children by Australia’s food and advertising industries.|
|Attempts to fragment opposition groups and destabilise individuals||Coca-Cola South Pacific monitoring the activities of a researcher studying the integrity of industry-sponsored research and how it is used to influence health policy|
For a more detailed exploration of food industry influence on a recent Australian parliamentary inquiry into obesity and the development of the Health Star Rating System, see next section Industry influence: two recent Australian case studies.