Governing through choice: Food labels and the confluence of food industry and public health discourse to create ‘healthy consumers’

01 March 2016

Food industry and public health representatives are often in conflict, particularly over food labelling policies and regulation. Food corporations are suspicious of regulated labels and perceive them as a threat to free market enterprise, opting instead for voluntary labels. Public health and consumer groups, in contrast, argue that regulated and easy-to-read labels are essential for consumers to exercise autonomy and make healthy choices in the face of food industry marketing. Although public health and food industry have distinct interests and objectives, I argue that both contribute to the creation of the food label as a governmental strategy that depends on free-market logics to secure individual and population health. While criticism of ‘Big Food’ has become a growth industry in academic publishing and research, wider critique is needed that also includes the activities of public health. Such a critique needs to address the normalizing effect of neoliberal governmentality within which both the food industry and public health operate to reinforce individuals as ‘healthy consumers’. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France, I examine the food label through the lens of governmentality. I argue that the rationale operating through the food label combines nutrition science and free-market logics to normalize subjects as responsible for their own health and reinforces the idea of consumption as a means to secure population health from diet-related chronic diseases.