Start small and scale up: How food MNCs can show they are part of the solution to Asia's obesity and diabetes epidemic

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

The industry is keen to achieve the UN goals of zero hunger and better health, said FIA executive director Matt Kovac.
The industry is keen to achieve the UN goals of zero hunger and better health, said FIA executive director Matt Kovac.

Related tags South east asia Southeast asia

Multinational food firms are striving to show they are part of the solution — and not the problem — when it comes to tackling Asia's rising levels of obesity and diabetes, but industry-backed projects need to be successful "on a small scale" before they can be ramped up.

Speaking at the Responsible Business Forum in Singapore, executive director of trade association Food Industry Asia (FIA) Matt Kovac acknowledged there were “sensitivities”​ around some of its members backing anti-obesity drives.

“You may think the companies we represent are part of problem, but we are also showing how they are part of the solution,”​ he said.

FIA member companies​ include Mars, Nestle, Mondelez, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and McDonalds. 

Matt Kovac

Kovac said FIA was representing these firmss through the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) – which also includes academics, policy makers and civil society.

It aims to address malnutrition in South East Asia, as well as obesity, he added.

“Sometimes health ministries, civil society and academia can be unwilling to work with industry and that can be a problem, especially when working towards achieving [the UN] Sustainable Development Goals two and three -  achieving zero hunger and good health and well-being by 2030.

“To tune into these goals, we established ARoFIIN and wanted it to become a public-private partnership. We are not there yet, but it is a neutral platform for debate where the FIA represents industry, and we pull in experts from member companies where needed,”​ he said.

He pointed to an ARoFIIN-commisioned report, “The Current Landscape and State of Health in Relation to Obesity in South-East Asia”,​ created by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) earlier this year as forming the basis for future action.

Nutrition campaigns

As we reported​ when it was launched, it stated the annual economic cost of obesity in South East Asia could be as high as US$10bn, a number that could rocket to $45bn if people who are currently overweight go on to become obese.

“Some of the potential interventions recommended in the report, especially those around taxation, were not welcome by industry, but they were still published,” ​added Kovac. “And since then we have been working with partners to look at where we can work together.”

He said a number of workshops had been held in the region and it was likely primary and secondary school children would be the focus of health and nutrition campaigns, through the guise of ARoFIIN and with industry backing.

“Again, we know this can be sensitive because of the companies we work with, so together we want to help health authorities’ work with schools to decide what they think is appropriate. Next year, ARoFIIN will be designed as platform to raise money for this,”​ added Kovac.

However, he cautioned that food companies could not be expected to fund this alone, noting that margins in the food industry are notoriously thin.

“We’ll also be looking to the World Bank, the Asia Development Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,”​ he added.

Kovac also insisted that these projects needed to start on a small scale to prove their success and build trust before being scaled-up.

“If we go very broad, it is very hard to know where to start. If we start small and increase trust, then we can show this is how the food industry can play a positive role.”

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