Problematising Big Food’s appetite for policymaking the case of childhood obesity

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Loughnane, Cliona
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University College Cork
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Big Food companies, such as Coca-Cola, claim they ‘are helping to develop workable solutions to address obesity – by partnering with government, academia, health societies and other responsible members of civil society’ (Coca-Cola, 2011: 1). Big Food’s reinvention as public health promoter means that government public health policy is increasingly entangled with corporate practices. In 2011, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland began a process to regulate the advertising of ultra-processed food to children in an attempt to address childhood obesity. This study takes Big Food’s response to this policy proposal and seeks to reveal what type of ‘problem’ childhood obesity is represented to be by Big Food. The focus on Big Food as a single discursive actor reflects the significant role which corporate interests increasingly play in the development of public health policy. Big Food is considered in this study as one of the governing parties in the shaping of discourse of childhood obesity. Employing the Foucauldian concepts of discourse and power/knowledge, this study looks at the deeper conceptual contests which frame how obesity policy is made in Ireland from the perspective of Big Food. The ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ (WPR) methodology (Bacchi, 2009, 2010, 2012) is employed to examine how Big Food’s discourses of childhood obesity have developed, how they are maintained and how they might be disrupted. Studies examining Big Food’s role in policymaking are increasingly common in other jurisdictions but this study is the first analysis of Big Food and childhood obesity in Ireland. This study finds that Big Food’s discourse strategies seek to influence what can be said, and done, about childhood obesity. It finds that Big Food’s representation of childhood obesity imagines eight subject positions (a mix of ideal and non-ideal): Big Food as the responsible corporate citizen; the regulator as unscientific and politically motivated; children as responsible child-consumers or child-gluttons; parents as in- or out-of-control; and citizens as informed, responsible consumers, or irresponsible consumers. These subject positions are constructed and made possible through a representation of obesity as a complex problem which is neither caused by particular types of food, nor by the marketing of such food. Big Food draws heavily on advanced liberal discourses of obesity, as well as using and adapting public health discourses, while ignoring critical public health discourses.
Big Food , Childhood obesity , Obesity , Discourse analysis , Public health , Policymaking
Loughnane, C. 2016. Problematising Big Food’s appetite for policymaking the case of childhood obesity. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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