One of the most popular fast food chains, McDonald’s Australia, has taken a grilling in a consumer study conducted by a South Australian public health research institute.
The ‘citizens’ jury’ resulted in a majority verdict in favour of increased government regulation on some of the ultra-processed products and Australian corporate operations of the giant transnational company – even if it means paying more for unhealthy food choices.
Government measures to address McDonald’s advertising to children and young people, the unhealthy and fattening nature of some food products, as well as practices to reduce tax paid in Australia were supported by the 15 average adult ‘citizen jurists’.
The citizens’ jury in Adelaide heard the results of a corporate health impact assessment (CHIA) of McDonald’s Australia conducted by the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University.
The assessment found that some of McDonald’s products and practices such as unhealthy foods and advertising targeting children are likely to have a negative impact on health. However, the research also found that McDonald’s practices in areas such as employment and sustainability, on balance, were likely to be a positive for health.
A food industry representative and two public health professionals also made presentations to the jury on the pluses and minuses of major food corporations such as McDonald’s in Australia.
“As the debate rages on obesity and chronic disease, the sample of South Australian citizens has called for more accountability from companies such as McDonald’s, says Southgate Institute senior research associate Dr Matt Fisher.
“These corporations, which are major employers and conduct a range of community and philanthropic activities in the community, exercise significant political influence in Australia,” Dr Fisher says.
“This tends to make governments reticent to regulate their activities, including their advertising or food products, as well as business practices to reduce tax liability in Australia.
“This study was conducted to assess whether there is community support to advance these concerns in the policy arena to improve population health.
“Outcomes of the jury are relevant to current debates on introduction of a sugar tax to combat the rise in obesity connected to consumption of highly sweetened soft drinks and potential for a range of similar actions in Australia.”
The citizen’s jury project is part of ongoing research to assess the health impacts on communities of transnational corporations (TNCs) involving an international network of researchers and led by Southgate Institute director Flinders Professor Fran Baum.
Southgate researchers are conducting other studies to test the efficacy of the CHIA framework to assess the health impacts of TNCs in other sectors such as pharmaceuticals and mining, nationally and internationally.
Among the feedback from the one-day citizens’ jury were public support for greater regulation of the fast food industry, including:
- Greater regulation of TNC tax minimisation practices, with jurors calling for changes to protect public revenue and promote equity.
- Two-third majority called for more regulation of fast food advertising and improved standards of consumer information with the aim of improving health.
- Different marketing approaches are needed, food must be healthier, and efforts made to better address the corporation’s environmental footprint.
A minority of jurors said existing regulations were adequate to enable McDonald’s to operate freely and for individuals to take responsibility for their own diet and health.
The WHO notes that worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these, over 650 million were obese.
Ultra-processed foods are energy dense and high in salt, fat and sugar, but low in micronutrients and their consumption has been linked to rising rates of obesity and chronic diseases which are the leading cause of illness, disability and death in Australia, accounting for 90% of all deaths in 2011.
‘A citizens’ jury on regulation of McDonald’s products and operations in Australia in response to a corporate health impact assessment’ will be published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health today.