Ronald McDonald as Buckingham guardPhoto: Guard by Micamica; Ronald McDonald by ClayirvingThe new conservative government in Britain has dropped all pretense of serving any master but the market. According to a story published last weekend in the Guardian, the new Tory-led Department of Health is putting food business giants including McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars, and Diageo “at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease.”

This appears to go far beyond giving industry “a seat at the table.” The Guardian characterizes the policy groups formed by the health ministry and known somewhat awkwardly as “responsibility deal networks” as nothing short of “dominated” by these companies. 

The U.K. government has gone so far as to allow that country’s powerful Wine and Spirit Trade Association to chair the group in charge of setting alcohol policy. The food policy group, meanwhile, includes a company whose highly-processed, high-fat school food dishes were much of the inspiration for chef and food activist Jamie Oliver’s now-canceled campaign to reform British school lunches. The new focus, according to the Guardian, will be “to explore voluntary not regulatory approaches” to addressing the obesity epidemic.

This turn of events across the pond is the most extreme example of the faith many officials have in voluntary approaches to addressing obesity. But it isn’t just a British phenomenon.

Former food executive and Atlantic magazine contributor Hank Cardello has a lengthy series detailing the various players in the obesity debate — activists, retailers, food manufacturers, and consumers — and showing how none of them can provide the “solution” to obesity. In his opinion, the only successful path is to “to convince food marketers that it’s ‘just good business’ to aggressively lower the calories they sell” in packaged foods. Fewer calories sold means fewer calories consumed. Problem solved!

Leave aside for a moment the logical flaws in that argument — e.g. people could just eat more of a lower-calorie packaged food and not cut their total caloric intake. Imagine instead that Cardello isn’t talking about obesity, that he’s talking about smoking. And right there, we know that voluntary methods won’t work. It took decades of government action, including education, advertising restrictions, taxes — the whole nine yards — before smoking rates started to decline significantly. If you think obesity is a nuisance, then no one’s going to bother. Sadly, obesity is far more than a nuisance for something like 85 million Americans and growing fast, in every direction and number. In fact, research shows that we won’t hit a “natural” plateau in the obesity rate until nearly half the U.S. population is obese.

Given that we face a problem of such monumental scale, it’s tragic that industry is growing ever more hostile to regulation of any kind. Just look at the efforts the chemical and food industries have put into killing bisphenol-A bans — most recently squashing Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) attempt to phase out BPA from baby bottles and sippy-cups in an amendment to the food-safety bill the Senate is about to vote on. This is over a chemical that is subject to growing consumer outrage and rejection. If food companies can’t see the advantage to phasing out an endocrine-disrupting chemical from their packaging — even for infants — how on earth are they going to get behind meaningful voluntary efforts to reduce obesity?

It’s nice to imagine that we can all join hands and march together into a low-obesity future. But the reality is that big business will never give up profitable businesses unless they experience the full-court press from government, researchers, activists, and consumers. A tall order, for sure. But let’s not fool ourselves that we can “volunteer” our way out of obesity.

Once upon a time Americans believed they couldn’t fight the all-powerful “City Hall.” Now it’s the mere mention of “Corporate HQ” that inspires shrugs of resignation and despair.