A Healthy Relationship

By Steven Bartholomeusz
Head of Advocacy and Communications, Food Industry Asia (FIA) 

More so than infectious diseases and other traditional healthcare issues, obesity is fast becoming the top risk factor targeting public health. As the issue grows in Asia, a unique public-private partnership is driving food innovation to tackle obesity in the region.

The impact of obesity on people’s lives, healthcare systems and economies is being debated in the media, by academics, industry, governments and regulators, almost daily. Punitive measures like proposed sugar-taxes or more sustained and planned efforts like the restriction of marketing to children are among a raft of measures debated. 

In Asia, while there has been a sharp growth in obesity rates (a recent study in Malaysia pointed to nearly 50 per cent of the adult population being overweight or obese) the number of people who suffer from hunger also remains steady. This double burden of obesity and undernutrition has become an emerging threat to health and healthcare systems in the region. It requires immediate action, which needs to be driven not only by governments and regulators, but by innovations in the food industry driven by the private sector, as well as scientists and academics, operating in the region.

Collecting expertise

Food Industry Asia (FIA) is a non-profit industry association that was established with the goal of harnessing the expertise of major food and beverage companies and responding to the region's complex challenges in food safety, regulatory harmonisation and effective approaches to public health. With health and nutrition as one of its cornerstones, FIA advocates a multi-stakeholder approach to addressing the dual burden of over-consumption and under-nutrition. As part of its efforts to combat this dual burden, FIA is working to raise awareness of the steps the industry is taking in Asia to help address this complex challenge, as well as building effective partnerships between the private sector and governments throughout the region to meet specific public health goals.

Singapore is home to one such unique public-private initiative, the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN), convened by Singapore government agencies including the Health Promotion Board (HPB), the Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR) the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) and FIA.

Set up at the beginning of 2015, ARoFIIN is about leveraging public-private partnership, to bring together a range of experts from academia, government, industry and civil society sectors from across Asia in order to initiate and sustain regional, multi-stakeholder dialogue on the role of food innovation in tackling obesity and chronic disease in the region. 

This group of key decision-makers works toward fostering a conducive forum to support dissemination of science-based information on the causes and drivers of obesity and chronic disease, as well as improve clarity on the barriers and enablers for food innovation and research and development in the region. ARoFIIN leverages effective public-private partnerships and stimulates scalable, cost-effective and multi-stakeholder strategies that seek to drive food innovation and positive change in consumer behaviour. 

Research and development

To deliver the goals of this partnership, four taskforces have been set up within the ARoFIIN umbrella, with members of Taskforce 2 (which focuses on consumers) having a role in establishing a research consortium to facilitate research and development in food innovation related to diets and consumer preferences in Asia. Taskforce 3 looks at processes and enablers that will cultivate a positive regulatory climate for innovation, while Taskforce 4, with a focus on the double burden challenge, will assess food supply-distribution mechanisms, working toward optimisation of best distribution channels and harmonising dialogue in inter-governmental forums.

“To effectively tackle a global issue like obesity, which is becoming more prevalent in Asia, along with under-nutrition, collaboration between multiple stakeholders – particularly public-private partnerships – are vital,” says Matt Kovac, Executive Director at FIA. “Public-private partnerships like ARoFIIN presents us with a great opportunity to bring a diverse range of multi-disciplinary experts to the table,” he said. 

FIA believes the food industry has an important role to play in participating and also driving forward initiatives like ARoFIIN. Recognising that healthy eating is a key factor in the fight against the dual burden as well as non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, FIA’s members share common values on the responsible promotion of balanced diets and lifestyles. FIA members continuously improve product offerings to create products that offer healthier options with more whole grains and fibre, more calcium, vitamins and minerals, more low-fat dairy, more vegetables and fruit, reduced sodium, less fat, less sugar and fewer calories. 

Pan-Asian partnerships

There are some great examples within the food industry in Asia, of companies working in public-private partnerships to deliver successful outcomes related to obesity, under-nutrition and non-communicable diseases. One such example is a partnership that deals with hidden hunger, which is an issue faced by
Singapore’s foreign migrant worker population. The food that is catered to them through contract food catering services is typically extremely poor in nutritional value. A partnership between Singapore-based business accelerator platform BoP Hub and healthcare multinational DSM aims to address this problem. 

An element of the solution they have identified is fortifying the rice that reaches the migrant workers, with essential vitamins and minerals. DSM has developed and patented a state-of-the-art technology to produce extruded rice pellets, which are then mixed into normal rice to obtain fortified rice.

DSM also maintains a very successful partnership with the World Food Program (WFP), which focusses on DSM providing scientific support to guarantee optimum nutrition for the WFP beneficiaries whereas the WFP allows DSM employees to contribute to WFP programs in countries like Zambia. Another partnership is the Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition (AIM), in which Dutch companies DSM, Akzo Nobel and Unilever collaborate with the Dutch foreign ministry Buitenlandse Zaaken, the University of Wageningen and the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to improve nutritional status of targeted populations and, at the same time, close scientific knowledge gaps.

Danone has a partnership in Bangladesh with the Mohammed Yunus Foundation, where Danone produces locally fortified yoghurt and distributes these via small business enterprises of women who sell the yoghurt in rural Bangladesh. The profits go to the Foundation that provides microcredits to small business start-ups in Bangladesh.

And there are numerous other examples of successful public-private partnerships from within the food industry such as FrieslandCampina's programme championing good health and nutrition in South East Asia through multi-stakeholder engagements, school milk programmes, Junior NBA camps and product renovation, The Coca Cola Company’s partnerships with Singapore’s Health Promotion Board (HPB) on sharing consumer insights,  promoting balanced diets and active lifestyles adoption through the  “Movement is Happiness” platform and promoting a healthy breakfast education through partnership in Indonesia by the Food and Nutrition Society of Indonesia, the Ministry of Health and industry.

FIA believes that the more effective measures (with long term impact) to combat obesity are those aimed at influencing the behaviours and habits of consumers, which can be achieved with comprehensive policy actions and public education, prevention and promotion of healthy lifestyles. From an industry perspective, this entails innovation, product reformulation, portion control, restrictions on the marketing of certain foods and beverages to children under 13, promotion of nutrition literacy and labelling, and public education on diet and the importance of physical activity. To achieve all of this requires the private sector to work closely with public institutions and other stakeholders. 

Government recognition

Public-private partnerships such as ARoFIIN play an increasingly important role in the debate on the impact of obesity and under-nutrition on people's lives, healthcare systems and economies globally and in Asia. Not only are they being recognised by public affairs professionals in the private sector as a means of delivering successful and sustainable results, but by government and civil society as well.

In a recent exclusive interview with FIA, Dr Sania Nishtar, co-chair of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO), said obesity is a multi-factor issue that requires a whole-of-society solution. She said that, “government needs to set policy and the necessary measures to ensure these are fully implemented and the private sector can play a role in addressing childhood obesity, as part of their core business.”

A report by McKinsey & Company titled “Public-Private Partnerships: Harnessing the Private Sector's Unique Ability to Enhance Social Impact” highlighted that “collaborative efforts between the public, private and civil sectors to address major societal challenges have delivered progress.” The report went on to say that “participation in PPPs can create a virtuous cycle of mutual benefit for all concerned; in particular, for private sector entities traditionally seen solely as benefactors and not as beneficiaries. One of our most striking findings is that the most effective PPPs understand that part of their strategy must be to explain to companies the benefits of greater involvement and to create an environment to engage their private sector partners more deeply.”

With public-private partnerships as a great way to enhance corporate reputation and build relations among all sets of key stakeholders, the public affairs lead needs to ensure that they identify partnerships that deliver mutual benefits to all parties involved. This is critical for the partnership to succeed. So it is vital to choose the right partners with common objectives, who are of a similar mindset, and who possess sectoral or mission alignments. Not having the right partners, partners who are not aligned to your core business or their goals or terms of reference or having unrealistic targets and expectations, can all lead to the failure of such partnerships. But such risks can be overcome with proper planning, analysis and agreement. 

For public affairs professionals, public-private partnerships provide an opportunity for the private sector to enhance its social impact as part of its core business, thereby creating outcomes that not only benefit society but have a benefit on their business reputation and bottom-line as well.

This article was written for the Communication Director magazine, and was originally published in Issue 4/2016.

Published on 19 Jan 2017