Holding Big Food accountable for marketing unhealthy products to children: A new approach under international human rights law?

Belinda Reeve1

1 Sydney Law School, University of Sydney, F10 Eastern Avenue, Camperdown, NSW 2006, email: Belinda.reeve@sydney.edu.au

Multinational food companies are a key “vector” for non-communicable disease, thanks to their role in manufacturing, selling, and promoting unhealthy foods and beverages. But unlike tobacco, public health advocates face an uphill battle in securing government restrictions on the sale and marketing of unhealthy foods.  In an attempt to prompt government action, advocates have framed aspects of chronic disease prevention as a human rights issue, including the promotion of unhealthy foods and beverages to children. Their argument is that targeting children in unhealthy food marketing infringes upon rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, justifying state intervention to protect children from unhealthy food advertising.

Rather than focusing on state obligations under international human rights law, this paper looks at whether holding food companies responsible for human rights infringements could benefit population health. This approach is worth considering in light of the creation of an international framework that holds businesses directly accountable for their impact on human rights, centred on the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. My paper explores the implications of these principles (and other related instruments) for business practices in relation to food marketing to children, and for states’ obligation to ensure that food companies respect human rights. The paper concludes by exploring the pitfalls of holding businesses directly responsible for their human rights performance, and explains why states should retain a central role in protecting health and human rights.


Belinda is a lecturer in health law at the Faculty of Law, University of Sydney. She has a particular interest in the role of law in chronic disease prevention, and has done research on topics such as food reformulation and regulation of food marketing to children.

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