Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Meal Makeover: How a Healthy Food Coalition Defeated a Fast Food Icon

On election day, while most of the nation was distracted with the mid-term election, another vote was taking place in San Francisco City Hall. The Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance to place limits—based on specific nutrition criteria—on how toys are marketed by restaurants in the city and county of San Francisco.

Most media accounts got the story wrong. The Los Angeles Times for example, called it a “Happy Meal ban.” (It’s true that, according to McDonald’s, none of the current Happy Meals meet the criteria, but that’s fixable.) The real story is, how did McDonald’s—the nation’s most beloved fast food brand—get so beat up?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

One health blogger's change of heart over Pepsi Refresh

My readers know by now that I am not exactly a fan of PepsiCo's mega-marketing campaign disguised as philanthropy known as the Pepsi Refresh Project. As I wrote about previously, the nation's largest food company is exploiting schoolchildren as young as age 6 in an effort to brand itself as the world's savior.

Even  healthy food projects are lining up to feed at the trough of Pepsi Refresh, without a hint of shame that these corporate, tax-deductible donations rely on sales of Cheetos and Mountain Dew.

So I was surprised and disappointed when I noticed fellow health blogger, Megan Yarbrough post to Twitter a call to vote for a Pepsi Refresh project. Because I know we are usually on the same page, I reached out to her privately with a direct message and asked that she not promote this awful program. She responded immediately, acknowledging my concern and recently posted to her blog about how I changed her mind. Here is that eloquent post in its entirety:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Too noisy to save the environment? Frito-Lay responds to SunChips compostable bag debacle

These days, many companies--and especially food companies--are falling over each other to prove their green cred to consumers. But given the usual challenges of trying to save the planet while you're destroying it, most efforts amount to a whole lot of greenwashing.

So when Frito-Lay announced last week that its SunChips compostable bag was a bust due to complaints that the bag was too noisy, the company found itself on the receiving end of some well-deserved, internet-fueled snark. One of the snarkiest came from's Sustainable Food Editor Sarah Parsons, who writes:
The switcheroo came after Americans complained about the bags' noise level—the little sacks apparently cause quite the ruckus as folks stick their paws in and out to grab fistfuls of chips. In the past year alone, SunChips sales decreased by more than 11 percent, mostly due to the boisterous bags. A Facebook group called "Sorry But I Can't Hear You Over This SunChips Bag" boasts more than 44,500 fans. Apparently a SunChips bag that drowns out the sound of one's own chip-crunching was very disconcerting for a populace that's come to expect a more subtle rustling from its potato chip sacks.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why are healthy food advocates stumping for Pepsi?

As I wrote last month, it can get pretty annoying when your friends harass you to vote for their favorite cause to "win" a grant from the now-ubiquitous Pepsi Refresh Project.

But lately I've been especially disappointed to see so many worthy food causes jumping on this marketing-disguised-as-philanthropy bandwagon. Let's not forget that PepsiCo owns not only  Pepsi-Cola and other unhealthy beverage lines such as Gatorade, but is also the king of salty snacks. The company's Frito-Lay division owns Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, you get the idea.

And yet without a hint of irony, in this promotional video to get people to submit project ideas to the contest, the Pepsi Refresh Project "Food and Shelter Ambassador" Allison Arieff waxes sentimental about gardening, surrounded by nothing but greenery, not a soda or chip in sight.

Here are just a few projects that have so far been crowned winners of Pepsi Refresh grants: First, there is the Bikeloc project. Pepsi introduces the celebratory video this way:
Robert DuBois and Aaron Zueck are "potlucking across America" in one hundred days, and they're doing it on bicycles. A $5,000 Pepsi Refresh grant put them in the saddle and allowed them to collect multimedia stories of the local food movement from coast to coast.
Just $5,000, was there really no other way of raising that money? Another project also won $5,000, this time for a school garden at an elementary school. Here's how Pepsi describes it:
Jeanne Acutanza had the idea to build a sustainable garden at her kids' school, where students and locals could plant crops together and donate the harvest to local food banks. She submitted her idea, you voted, and it won a $5,000 Pepsi Refresh Grant.
And in another heartwarming kid project, a farmers market manager in Illinois featured here describes how he won $25,000 to help teach schoolchildren about eating fresh fruits and vegetables, a worthy cause for sure. But what about the mixed messages kids receive from all the promotion with Pepsi logos associated with these two projects?

Now, it's no wonder that in these hard economic times, so many groups would be desperate enough to turn to the nation's largest purveyor of processed food to try and promote the healthy kind. But what these organizations don't realize is that are really doing more to promote the Pepsi brand then they are to advance their own cause. Indeed, they are undermining the very ideals they espouse.

Moreover, these grants give credibility to the notion that we can (and should) rely on Big Food to fix our broken food system. But nothing could be further from the truth. PepsiCo is happy to spend relatively small amounts of money in exchange for getting to hitch its PR wagon to the likes of farmers markets and school gardens.

Meanwhile, the sale of junk food and soda continues unabated.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

While we battle over ingredients like HFCS, Big Food is winning the processed food war

If there was Twitter for food only, today's trending topic would have been the Big News that the Corn Refiners Association (yes, there are lobbyists for people who refine corn) is asking the Food and Drug Administration to rename high-fructose corn syrup (aka HFCS) "corn sugar." This, the latest in the corn industry's attempts to restore the tarnished reputation of its omnipresent by-product. Tara Parker-Pope, health blogger for the New York Times, quotes Audrae Erickson, president of CRA, who explains:
Clearly the name is confusing consumers. Research shows that ‘corn sugar’ better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose and the sweetness in this ingredient.
Clearly the name is confusing? That must explain the PR campaign the corn refiners embarked on not long ago (cutely dubbed "sweet surprise") to un-confuse consumers. But now, focus group results in hand, industry is doing what they do even better than PR: lobby the federal government to get its way.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tweet Responsibly: Tips for being an effective food activist (or any other kind) on Twitter

First of all, I am no Twitter expert. But after about 6 months I've noticed a few things that drive me nuts. Because 140 characters is insufficient to explain, I'm airing my concerns in this longer format. I've been writing about the food industry, food policy, and the politics of food for about 14 years now, and as a lawyer, I take pride in being accurate about policy, as well as industry practices. While I am used to writing in long format, I also appreciate the fun of saying things quickly and succinctly.

What I love most about Twitter is sharing with, and learning from, my fellow food activists, writers, experts, parents, and just anyone who cares about the politics of what's on our plate. I love the up-to-the-minute news, blog posts, action alerts, and even the waxing sentimental about whatever local food is in season.

But what I don't like is the sloppiness that typing up to 140 characters at lightning speed can sometimes foster. Lately I have felt the urge to correct a few things being posted to Twitter. Now I realize it may be annoying when I hit reply and wag my finger, but I think accuracy is important. So if it can't be said correctly in 140 characters, than either be very vague, just give the url, or leave it alone. And here are few more rules for how to be an effective activist on Twitter:

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Why is McDonald's listed a resource for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month?

I am not a fan of any sort of "awareness" month as I find the concept trivializes important health issues. Are we only supposed to care about heart disease, diabetes, etc, during that one month of the year? And I rarely see anything of substance come from the month-long activities, just the usual ineffective educational campaigns, instead of meaningful public policy reforms. Plus many issues tend to crowd themselves into certain months, so it all becomes background noise. September is one such month. Among other causes (e.g., "cholesterol education"), September has been proclaimed "Childhood Obesity Awareness Month" by Congress and President Obama.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back to school with PepsiCo stealth marketing?

I recently blogged about questions regarding how PepsiCo's voluntary beverage guidelines, announced in March, would be implemented in schools given that contracts are made at the local level. Now with back- to-school in full swing, I have even more questions about how PepsiCo may be using stealth marketing techniques to gain access to that coveted captive K-12 audience.

Today, the company announced a new program it calls Score for Your School. From the press release:

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Must-read aricles on egg recall that I did not write

In case you missed it, either because you don't watch the news, don't eat eggs, or like me, both, about 1,500 people have so far been sickened by an outbreak of Salmonella in eggs. A massive recall of half a billion eggs from two Iowa factory farms ensued. I was planning to write my own blog post on this when I realized that others have already done such a good job saying what needed to be said. So instead, I am offering up my list of favorite articles by people I already knew or have just come to admire.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Video of my MSNBC interview on egg recall

Today I was interviewed on the Dylan Ratigan Show about the massive egg recall this week, now at more than half a billion eggs, with at least 1,000 people made ill and counting. The host understood that the root cause of the problem is our industrialized, factory farm food system. The segment starts about a minute into the video clip.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Will schools follow new PepsiCo beverage guidelines even if students want Mountain Dew?

This past March, soft drink giant PepsiCo announced with much fanfare a new global school policy. The specific guidelines, to take effect by 2012, limit the types of beverages that are to be sold in schools. According to the press release, the policy will "stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools."

That's why the announcement last week that Union County High School in Indiana was signing on to a brand new five-year contract with Pepsi (thereby ending its exclusive contract with Coca-Cola) came as a surprise. Not the contract itself, but what one school official had to say about it. From the news article:
The new contract is expected to earn the high school and middle school and booster groups $20,000 more over five years, Union County Middle School Assistant Principal Mark Detweiler said. Prices for soft drinks will remain $1.25, but school officials expect sales to increase with Pepsi products. "Students drink Mountain Dew," Detweiler said.
They sure do, only problem is, PepsiCo says those products aren't for sale. Or are they?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Court not buying Coke's defense of its deceptive marketing of vitaminwater as lawsuit proceeds

My friends at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently scored an important court victory in its lawsuit against Coca-Cola for deceptive marketing of its product vitaminwater. (In case you missed it, the soft drink giant purchased Glaceau, maker of vitaminwater, back in 2007 for a cool $4.2 billion in cash.)

The class action, filed in January 2009 in federal court in New York, alleges that Coca-Cola's claims about vitaminwater's heath benefits are false, misleading, deceptive, and unfair. As CSPI's press release explained:
Vitaminwater's website, marketing copy, and labels claim that vitaminwater is healthy, claiming, for example, that "balance cran-grapefruit" has "bioactive components" that promote "healthy, pain-free functioning of joints, structural integrity of joints and bones" and that the nutrients in “power-c dragonfruit" "enable the body to exert physical power by contributing to the structural integrity of the musculoskeletal system."
If those claims sound like they belong on a pharmaceutical product, you're right. As CSPI notes, they go way beyond anything the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows "and cross the line into outright fraud." Then there's the sugar. According to CSPI, "the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of vitaminwater do more to promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles."

Thursday, August 05, 2010

My latest article on AlterNet - how PepsiCo is buying up top-notch health experts

My latest article on AlterNet is entitled: "How Junk Food Giant PepsiCo Is Buying Up High-Ranking Experts to Look Like a Leader in Health and Nutrition."

And the subhead is just as fun: "Pepsi's strategy: Create a research environment so scientists and public health experts don't feel out of place at the corporate HQ of sugar, salt and fat."

You can read it there and add your comments.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Yale Alumni Magazine covers PepsiCo / Yale School of Medicine partnership controversy

This past March, I blogged about how soda and snack food giant PepsiCo formed a partnership with the Yale School of Medicine, where I earned my public health degree. The grant included $250,000 for a 5-year research fellowship to be awarded to an MD/PhD student.

That post apparently set off a chain reaction of coverage of the deal, first in the Yale Daily News ("Critics fizz over Pepsi gift"), followed by the Wall Street Journal ("Boola Moolah! Food Fight at Yale") and on the San Francisco Chronicle health blog.

Now, in the current issue of Yale Alumni Magazine, fellow alum Carole Bass pens "Critics question Pepsi partnership," quoting me and others on the wisdom of Yale linking arms with the nation's largest promoter of sugar, salt, and fat. Adding to the irony, Yale is already home to the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity, which is headed up by Kelly Brownell, a frequent critic of Big Food.

And anyway, what sort of research could possibly come of this largesse that didn't benefit PespiCo? Playing defense in the article is Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern: "There are numerous safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our research."

It's probably a bad sign when you have to use the word "safeguard" to defend taking money. Safeguards are usually for doing risky things, like skateboarding and skydiving, not philanthropy.

Alpern also responds to those who worry that the medical school's scientific principles may have been sacrificed in the name of Cheetos and Mountain Dew. Not so, Alpern assures my fellow alumni: "PepsiCo will have no involvement in who is chosen for the fellowship or the project to which the student is assigned." I for one am not assured.

The article ends aptly with a quote from Professor Jerome Kassirer, expert in conflicts of interest at Tufts School of Medicine: (Could the author find no such expert at Yale?)
The problem is that it's impossible to know whether the money given to the school can in some way have an influence on what people in the [nutrition] department might say about PepsiCo products.
And that's just for starters.

Back in April I posted the lame response I got from Yale's public affairs office upon signing a petition started on, which now has more than 1,000 signatures. But let's keep the pressure on. You can either sign the petition or email Dean Alpern directly.

And thanks to reporter Carole Bass for a job well done.

Bangkok Post covers release of Appetite for Profit in Thailand as problem spreads there

OK, so is not one my usual blog posts, but I can't help sharing my excitement. As I wrote about previously, my book has been translated into Thai, with 1,000 copies already distributed.

The translation and distribution of Appetite for Profit was commissioned by the Chulalongkorn University-based Health Consumer Protection Project, which is now releasing more copies, as was reported yesterday by the Bangkok Post. The article ("Taking a bite of out fast food: An expose details the industry's attack on food") includes graphics with pull-out quotes from the book.

If you're wondering why folks in Thailand would be interested in a book that is admittedly pretty America-centric, it seems there are warning signs that the problem is spreading there. For example, a survey conducted by the Thai Office of the Basic Education Commission found that sodas are available at 20 percent of the 20,000 schools in the country.

And this will sound familiar. Another study found some schools had agreed to allow a beverage giant to sell soda on school property in exchange for the company providing a van.

Here is how Siriwat Tiptaradol, Public Health Ministry deputy permanent secretary and the editor of the Thai version of the book explains it: "The influence of the food industry isn't limited to the US, but extends all over the world." The article also makes the case for policy change:
Developing countries like Thailand should be alert about this transnational issue and work with authorities, academics, and the public and private sectors to come up with policies to safeguard people from conditions that result from poor diet such as diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes. Otherwise, these problems will end up costing billions of baht in health care spending every year, Tiptaradol said.

A wise call for prevention before its too late.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Family doctors debate if they should take Coke money, after they took it

In this week's Health Blog, the Wall Street Journal's Katherine Hobson asks readers to chime in on a "debate" among family doctors over the ethics of corporate sponsorship of medicine.

But first, the backdrop. Last year, the American Academy of Family Physicians announced "a new corporate partnership program" and its first partner was to be The Coca-Cola Company. Soon thereafter, about 20 doctors resigned from the organization in protest, drawing attention to the matter by Food Politics author Marion Nestle as well as advocacy groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. (Full disclosure: I serve on CCFC's steering committee.)

The grant amount was described as being in the "strong six figures" by AAFP. Here is how the group described the partnership in its October 2009 press release:
The Consumer Alliance is a program that allows corporate partners like The Coca-Cola Company to work with the AAFP to educate consumers about the role their products can play in a healthy, active lifestyle. As part of this partnership, The Coca-Cola Company is providing a grant to the AAFP to develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners for, an award-winning consumer health and wellness resource.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nestle Stoops to New Low, Launches Barge to Peddle Junk Food on the Amazon River to Brazil's Poor - AlterNet article

After previously blogging about the Nestle junk food barge, AlterNet asked me to write an article on the topic. How could I say no? Please read the expanded version of this story, this time with plenty of quotes, including an NGO in Brazil working to stop this very sort of marketing.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Happy Meal Lawsuit Update: Is McDonald's Playing Games with Nutrition Facts?

Last week I blogged about how the Center for Public Interest (CSPI) is threatening a lawsuit against McDonald's for using toys to promote Happy Meals to kids. Since then, McDonald's has responded, sort of. In a letter apparently fed to the press even before CSPI got to see it, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner attempts to "set the record straight:"
We have a long history of working with responsible NGOs who are interested in serious dialogue and meaningful engagement; and we are open to constructive feedback.
Really? Like how McDonald's worked with those two activists in the UK by suing them for libel in the 1990s for putting out a simple brochure? The case (dubbed McLibel) spawned a book and a movie and became notorious for being the longest English trial ever, not to mention the stupidest public relations move short of New Coke.

Skinner continues to dig his own grave:
Ronald McDonald also serves as an ambassador for children's well-being, promoting messages around physical activity and living a balanced, active lifestyle.
Right. That must explain why an entire campaign was launched in March by Corporate Accountability International to Retire Ronald based on an investigation that showed how the clown's main job is to promote McDonald's unhealthy foods, in schools and just about anywhere children can be found.

Monday, July 05, 2010

McDonald's Facing Potential Lawsuit for Luring Kids With Happy Meal Toys - It's About Time

It was only a matter of time. Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) served McDonald's with a notice of its intent to sue if the fast food giant continues to use toys to promote Happy Meals. (An "intent to sue" letter is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in some states.) The basis for the potential case is that using toys to market to small children is unfair and deceptive under the consumer protection laws in a number of states. According to CSPI's letter, McDonald's toy promotions violate the laws of California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Texas, and the District of Columbia. 

CSPI's litigation director Stephen Gardner explained in a statement that "McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to our children. McDonald's use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children's developmental immaturity."

Thursday, July 01, 2010

How Did PepsiCo's CEO Infiltrate the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Annual Report on Obesity?

Because I tend to focus my attention on news being generated by the major food companies, I don't always pay close attention to the latest scary reports on obesity data. So when the annual report called F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing America came out this week, I just thought, Oh there's that report again with the awful name, with the same gloomy numbers as last year.

But then I got an interesting email message forwarded from New York University professor and food politics maven Marion Nestle that made me realize I should pay closer attention to this year's report. The email was from Harold Goldstein, executive director of the highly effective non-profit, California Center for Public Health Advocacy. He was questioning how the CEO of PepsiCo was given 2 pages of airtime in the report. What was that? The CEO of a major company contributing to the very facts and figures contained within the 124-page document was offered space to make her case?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

All Aboard for Ice Cream: Nestle Peddling Junk Food on Amazon River to Reach Brazil's Slums

I have many things to do today and writing this post was not on my list. But as I was cleaning out my in-box, an especially disgusting news item caught my attention and writing about it is the only way I know to release my outrage. My version of screaming from the rooftop.

The offending article, on (Nestle to Sail Amazon Rivers to Reach Consumers) describes how the world's largest food company will soon "begin sailing a supermarket barge down two Amazon river tributaries as it competes with Unilever to reach emerging-market customers cut off from branded goods."

A supermarket barge? Has Big Food already run out of customers in cities and other locales that are more readily accessible by land? Cut off from branded goods? I don't think these people are lost or have been camping out too long, they're just living their lives. They probably don't even realize they are missing out on Toll House, Raisinets, and Sno-Caps. But no matter, if there are people out there so backwards to still be subsisting on food found in nature, Big Food will find them, by land or by sea, and set them straight.

The boat, with more than 1,000 square feet of supermarket space, will journey to 18 cities, reaching 800,000 potential consumers in Brazil, and will even provide access for the disabled and elderly.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Letter from NGO in Thailand re: Appetite for Profit

At the risk of tooting my own horn, just wanted to share this really nice letter I got from the director of the Health Consumer Protection Program at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. They had previously requested permission to translate Appetite for Profit and distribute 1,000 copies of the book. Apparently, it's been a hit, so they need more copies, and I am happy to oblige.
Dear Ms. Michele Simon,
I would like to express my gratitude for your permission for the translation and the printing of translated version of the book “Appetite for Profit: How the food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” of which 1,000 copies were published. Free copies have been distributed to local consumer advocates and those in alternative agricultural networks in country. Apparently, the book is welcome with great enthusiasm as it has broadened the readers’ perspective on food industry system and impact of the industry’s marketing manipulation towards the public’s well-being. Such awareness will definitely help protecting Thai consumers’ right and eventually promoting their healthier eating habit.
As the first edition is running out so fast, I would like to ask for your permission for a reprint of yet another 1,000 copies. This lot will be distributed without any charge to the general public as well as to university libraries across the country. 
Yours sincerely,
Association Professor Vithaya Koolsomboon, Ph.D.
Director of Health Consumer Protection Program,
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok    

Thursday, June 03, 2010

PepsiCo Teams up with White House to Whitewash Worthless Snack and Sodas - AlterNet article

Food and beverage giant PepsiCo claims to be "investing in a healthier future for people and our planet." But how is that possible when their top-selling products include Mountain Dew and Doritos? 

Check out my article on PepsiCo over at AlterNet. Please post comments there, if you're so inclined, since editors love that.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

PepsiCo's latest "local" ad campaign for Lay's reveals that potato chips come from... potatoes!

In case potato chips lovers had no idea where their favorite salty snacks came from, America's largest chip maker has launched a new ad campaign clearing up the confusion once and for all.

As explained by the New York Times this week (in the advertising section, not food, and rightly so) the ads appear to stem from recent concern over the high salt content and other nutritional challenges of the likes of Lay's. To quote columnist Stuart Elliot, the campaign "is intended to help consumers think of Lay's as a food rather than a snack" and is "centered on farmers who grow potatoes for the maker of Lay's, the Frito-Lay unit of PepsiCo."

Not to miss out on the current "love your local farmer" movement, the campaign features ads of regional farmers in local markets, along with an online "Happiness Exhibit" photo gallery at

The Times describes why the stakes are so high. Lay's is PepsiCo's third best-selling product, second only to the company's Pepsi-Cola and Mountain Dew brands. Total Lay's sales topped $2 billion last year. Yet, growth is the key to continued success, and according to the Times:
Sales growth for Lay’s had slowed to less than 1 percent from 2005 to 2007, raising concern among executives at Frito-Lay as well as PepsiCo.
Surveys revealed that Frito-Lay had a perception problem on its hands. Apparently, a third of respondents thought the ingredients were "not real potatoes." That's when the marketing machine sprung into action. New ads were designed to convey the "three simple ingredients" in the main variety of Lay’s, called Lay’s Classic: potatoes, "all-natural" sunflower oil and "a dash of salt."

The addition of farmers to the ad campaign is an aim, says Gannon Jones, vice president for portfolio marketing at Frito-Lay, "to put the hometown face on it, and the hometown face is our farmers."

How touching. Funny the company didn't put the "hometown face" of the local factory workers who pulverize the potatoes, and then douse the mixture in salt (more than a dash) along with many gallons of ("all-natural") oil. Or the other numerous local factory workers who must work very hard turning those "simple ingredients" into fried chips. Then there are even more local factory workers on the assembly line where all of those many chips are put into bags. Hmmm.

Oh wait, they also left out the local factory workers who put the bags into boxes, seal the boxes and get them ready to leave the factories. And who can forget all the local truckers who have to drive the big trucks to the regional distribution centers before they can be delivered by yet other local truck drivers to all those local stores. Nope, just gonna focus on the local farmers. Wonder why?

I thought this local angle sounded familiar. Indeed, when Frito-Lay first tried to go the "Local Lay's" route last year, there was plenty of skepticism to go around. (See for example, Frito-Lay Embraces Local Movement, But Movement Does Not Embrace Frito-Lay.)

Also, I was interviewed for this article in Ad Age at the start of the campaign and called it disingenuous then. (That was an understatement.) Here's what else I had to say about it:
Let's be honest: It's processed junk food. It's just companies scrambling to save themselves as they see the trend happening as people are waking up and getting a clue that maybe packaged food isn't good for you.
Then I got the last word in that story:
They have factories all over the country so they're locally processed? Give me a break. That's hilarious. You might as well say 'I rolled this cigarette in my backyard so it's local.'
Sorry for recycling old quotes, but if it still works, why not?

Thanks to my esteemed colleague Marion Nestle who pointed me to this story. Her clever name for it? Farmwashing!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wondering where in the world Big Food will put 1.5 trillion calories?

Last week, 16 major packaged food companies "pledged" to Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign that they would somehow remove 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. food supply by the end of 2015. As I wrote here, there are many reasons to be skeptical about this announcement. Since my post others have chimed in with their own doubts. For example, see business writer Melanie Warner's excellent analysis, Food Industry's Calorie Reduction Pledge: Smart Marketing, but Dumb Nutrition.

I also had this nagging feeling that even if these food companies were to honor their promise, those calories would not just disappear, rather they would likely just turn up in other countries. Sure enough, with the ink barely dry on the calorie-reduction agreement, in came a press release from one of the most important pledgers - PepsiCo.

PepsiCo proudly announced that it's investing $2.5 billion in China, on top of the $1 billion the company has already spent there since 2008. The soft drink and snack food giant intends to build a dozen new food and beverage plants, to add to the current 27 facilities.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this announcement, made at the Shanghai Expo, indicates stepped-up competition with Coca-Cola, who announced its own $2 billion investment in China late last year. (Both companies are major sponsors of the Expo.) WSJ explains why Coke and Pepsi are so eager to find fertile ground:
Both beverage giants are expanding aggressively in China, India and Russia, among other emerging markets, where growth is much faster than in the U.S. Soft-drink sales have declined for five years in the U.S.
"Emerging markets" is corporate-speak for developing nations. While sales slump here at home, PepsiCo is seeing double-digit growth overseas:
Its international business boosted first-quarter results, with its Asia, Middle East and Africa unit posting 13% growth in snack volume and 10% in beverage volume, largely because of growth in China and India.
Meanwhile Coca-Cola, never to be outdone by PepsiCo in the chutzpah department, quietly announced, the week prior to the Big Food White House Pledge, that they were investing $300 million in Pakistan. The plan is to build two more (adding to the current six) manufacturing plants in that country. This is another direct challenge to PepsiCo, which already has a major presence in the Middle East. (A friend who is currently teaching at Lahore University of Management Sciences tells me that students there eat in the "Pepsi Dining Center.")

One article explains Coca-Cola's motives: "Pakistan is a growing market. It has a population of 170 million and majority of them are youngsters," said Rizwan U Khan, Coca-Cola’s country manager for Pakistan and Afghanistan. "We view this country has a favourable place for expansion."

The majority are youngsters, of course, since youth is the optimum time to get more loyal customers. Funny how we didn't hear any such honest assessment coming out of Big Food last week at the White House. They were on their best behavior there. And while PepsiCo previously endorsed the First Lady's Let's Move campaign, it seems Big Food only cares about childhood obesity in America. Indian kids, Pakistani kids, Chinese kids, who cares?

Of course, the cigarette industry wrote this playbook years ago. Once regulations started becoming inhospitable in the United States, Big Tobacco just stepped up their marketing efforts overseas, especially in the developing world and as a result, smoking is an international epidemic. To quote Dr. Margaret Chan, World Health Organization director-general:
If Big Tobacco is in retreat in some parts of the world, it is on the march in others. As we all know, the tobacco industry is ruthless, devious, rich and powerful.
Just replace the word tobacco with food in that quote, and you will see our future.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why humane meat is an oxymoron - the Lyman v. Niman debate

Last night I attended an entertaining debate between ex-cattle rancher turned vegan Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy, and Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkshop and wife of Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman. The event was co-sponsored by VegNews Magazine and Earth Island Institute and held in the impressive David Brower Center in Berkeley. (I know, where else?)

The subtitle of the event asked the question, Can you be a "good environmentalist" and still eat meat?

Full disclosure: this is not an objective review of what transpired. While I don't tend to put it front and center in my writing these days, I have been vegetarian (mostly vegan) for close to 15 years. My own thinking has evolved over the years and I now advocate more broadly for a mostly plant-based, whole-foods diet, which no educated person can argue with nutritionally. While I realize it may not harm your health to eat a small amount of meat here and there, I have decided for ethical reasons not to do so. I decided to write this post because much of what I heard last night was not adequately addressed by the speakers and I want to add my own thoughts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Big Food pledge placates White House - Who needs policy when you've got promises?

You've got to hand it to the food industry. They certainly know how to get the attention of the White House just when they need it most. As announced today by Michelle Obama herself, the nation's leading food companies have made yet another pledge, this one in the form of an agreement signed with the Partnership for a Healthier America, an off-shoot of the First Lady's Let's Move campaign.

Mrs. Obama said that 16 corporations accounting for up to 25 percent of the American food supply chain would trim a total of one trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. Sounds impressive, but I am not really sure exactly what it means. Trim calories, from what? OK, to be fair, here's how the press release attempts to explain it:
Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goal by developing and introducing lower-calorie options, changing recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products, or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products.
First off, who is the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation? Good question, certainly sounds official, but a quick perusal of the website reveals a virtual who's who of Big Food: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and of course, PepsiCo, whose CEO Indra Nooyi serves as vice chair. (Kellogg's CEO got the top spot and was at today's White House briefing, see leadership.)

And you gotta love this mission statement: "Our mission is to try to help reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015." Try to help? Reduce? Especially? Sounds pretty lame. But I digress.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Big Food Goes North to Buy Out Dietitians of Canada Too

Some things in Canada just seem so much more sane than here in the states. Better (any) health care of course is the most touted reason to move north of the border.

If you're like me and many others fed up with the American Dietetic Association's ongoing affiliation with the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald's, (see previous post and comments) you might wonder if this insane hypocrisy is something unique to America. You might think that dietitians in a country humane enough to provide its citizens with decent health care would steer clear of Big Food influence over its nutrition professionals. I am sorry to report that this is not the case.

As recently described in painful detail by a Canadian dietitian blogger (Nutrition Nibbles) Sybil Hebert, the ADA equivalent trade group, Dietitians of Canada (DC) "partners with industry, including Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Monsanto, and Nestle." As a new member, Ms. Hebert was not happy to learn this troubling information, and inspired by Marion Nestle's call to ADA members on the same topic, decided to make her distaste known with a letter of her own.

Her impressive missive details numerous examples of industry partnerships such as raking in over $200,000 dollars from corporate sponsorships, including the pharmaceutical industry. She concludes with this reasonable request to the organization's leadership:
Board of Directors, as long as DC continues to align itself with food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, and rely on these corporations for funding, it will never be respected, and neither will I. As a member of the purported “nation-wide voice of dietitians,” I hope my voice, and my concerns, are heard, and that DC will carefully review its advertising and sponsorship policies to recognize the many conflicts of interest that exist, and their consequences, and take steps to minimize them in order to restore DC’s credibility.
Well said. I've heard from many dietitians in the U.S. who are no longer members of the ADA for this very reason, that the organization cannot be respected as long as it is compromised.

Unfortunately, the DC leadership has not taken too kindly to Ms. Hebert's request, and in particular to the fact that she has posted her letter on her blog. Despite (or maybe because of) the many comments in support, Ms. Hebert has received more than one email asking her to take down the post. 

What is the leadership of Dietitians of Canada so afraid of? It's certainly no secret that the organization partners with industry. It only took me a minute to find the program for DC's upcoming annual conference in Montreal, which lists among its sponsors: General Mills, Danone, Unilever, PepsiCo, and a plethora of drug companies. In just one day you can attend the Kellogg Breakfast, followed by the Kellogg Nutrition Symposium, and then take a Kellogg break. Maybe the Dietitians of Canada should consider changing its name to Dietitians of Kellogg. Then again, maybe that would make all those other corporate sponsors too upset.

This isn't the first time the trade group has been called out for its conflict of interest. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is a family doctor in Ottawa who has wondered (among other conflicts) what the heck the Dietitians of Canada was doing putting out a joint press release last year with the Dairy Farmers of Canada making nutrition recommendations that essentially served as a "milk advertisement" (his words).

Professional associations such as the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada must renounce their corporate affiliations and stop taking money from the very companies that are undermining their own members' ability to do help people eat right. Until they do so, these groups risk becoming little more than a tool of corporate interests, which is exactly what Big Food wants.

We need more dietitians like Sybil Hebert taking a public stand. Please post comments both here and on her blog in support and if you're a member of either the American Dietetic Association or Dietitians of Canada voice your concerns directly to the leadership. If you're no longer a member, tell them why you left. Together, our voices can make a difference.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Santa Clara County Begins the Fast Food Toy Rebellion - Parents Rejoice!

Any parent who has ever driven by a McDonald's with little ones in the back seat knows how hard it can be to resist the lobbying, often made even worse due to the marketing of toys with Happy Meals. And of course, other fast food chains also lure kids in with the latest installment of some toy series, often tied to the latest blockbuster movie. 

I've been saying for years that it's only a matter of time until some city or county figures out that a simple change in law is all that's needed to make such promotions illegal at the local level. (Localities have tremendous public health authority that is often underutilized.) On Tuesday, it finally happened, and I am proud to say, in a county in my home state of California.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Santa Clara County (Calif) bans toys in unhealthy fast food - press release

I will write more about this soon, but here is the press release:

County Officials Pass Nation’s First Childhood Obesity Ordinance to Address Restaurant Toy Giveaways

San José – Today [Tues 4/27], the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance proposed by Board President Ken Yeager that is the first of its kind in the United States.  The new law will combat childhood obesity by preventing restaurants from using toys and other incentives to lure kids to meals that are high in fat, sugar and calories. Today’s action supports parents’ efforts to choose more nutritious options for their children.
Restaurants encourage children to choose specific menu items by linking them with free toys and other incentive items, and research shows that parents frequently make purchases based on requests made by children.  In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that restaurants sold 1.2 billion meals accompanied by toys to children under 12.  While there are currently no nutritional standards for  meals marketed to children, a 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 10 out of 12 meals exceeding the recommended caloric limits for children came with toys.
“This ordinance levels the playing field,” said Yeager.  “It helps parents make the choices they want for their children without toys and other freebies luring them toward food that fails to meet basic nutritional standards.”
One in four youth in Santa Clara county are either overweight or obese, and one in three low-income children in Santa Clara County between ages two and five are overweight or obese.  Nationally, childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s.  Obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.  Thirty percent of boys and 40% of girls born in 2000 will be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which can result in the loss of, on average, 10-15 years of life.
“The latest generation of children may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents,” said Yeager of the childhood obesity crisis.  “Using toys to entice children into poor health habits is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
The ordinance supports the health of children in the County by setting basic nutritional standards for children’s meals accompanied by toys or other incentive items.  It permits restaurants to offer toys and other incentive items long as it is with food that meets national nutritional criteria for children. 
The ordinance imposes very specific, common-sense restrictions.  Restaurants cannot use toys as rewards for buying foods that have excessive calories (more than 120 for a beverage, 200 for a single food item or 485 for a meal), excessive sodium (480 mg for a single food item or 600 mg for a meal), excessive fat (more than 35% of total calories from fat), or excessive sugar (more than 10% of calories from added sweeteners.)  The criteria are based on nationally recognized standards for children’s health created by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and recommendations for children’s food published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).
The Santa Clara County health system has seen rapid increases in children seeking healthcare for obesity-related problems at a cost of millions of dollars each year.  The County even created a Pediatric Healthy Lifestyle Center to address the complex medical needs of obese children in the county.
Childhood obesity is a critical public health issue,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Acting Public Health Officer.  “If we can help parents break the link between eating unhealthy food and getting a prize, we should.”
The ordinance affects all restaurants in the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County.  Before going into effect, the ordinance requires a second reading that will happen at the May 11 Board of Supervisor’s meeting.  Restaurants will then be granted a 90-day grace period.  During that time, restaurants will be given the opportunity offer alternative measures to meet the goals of the ordinance.  If no suitable alternative is created and adopted by the Board of Supervisors, the ordinance will go into effect.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Taking on Big Soda over Taxes: Lessons Learned from Fighting Big Alcohol

This article of mine was recently published on the Corporations and Health website.

Since I started working at Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group, in 2007 it’s become painfully clear that corporations have the same playbook. Whether it’s the food industry, tobacco, or alcohol, they all use the same talking points and lobbying strategies. While Big Tobacco may be most infamous for decades of hiding scientific evidence of harm and the deceptive marketing, all industries have similar tactics.

In my work at Marin Institute, raising alcohol taxes has been a primary focus of our policy agenda because we know that increasing prices is one of the most effective ways to prevent underage drinking and adult overconsumption. With soda taxes becoming an increasingly attractive policy option to help prevent diabetes and obesity, the soft drink industry is fighting back, and hard. While tobacco is often mentioned as the analogous issue, in fact, alcohol is more similar to soft drinks.

Besides the obvious (they are both beverages), alcohol and soft drinks each hold a special place in American culture. There’s nothing more American than relaxing with a Coke, or a Bud. Also, unlike smoking, which everyone (well, except the tobacco industry) can agree should simply be stopped, when it comes to beverages, the message is more about cutting down.

Here, I offer a few of the lessons that alcohol control advocates have learned from decades of fights with industry over raising taxes, fights that continue to this day.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

PepsiCo Triples its Chances of Hooking Teens on Gatorade, Targets their "Emotional Relationship with Sports"

Every few years, when sales decline in a flagship brand, the parent company has to figure out how to "refresh the brand" to re-boost sales and keep investors happy. Such is the case now with PepsiCo's Gatorade line, which has been in a sales slump for three years.

Invented in 1965 by University of Florida researchers, Gatorade is PepsiCo's third-biggest selling global beverage brand after Pepsi-Cola and Mountain Dew. So when its sales declined 14% last year, this was cause for concern on Wall Street. Enter "G" brands, PepsiCo's first in a series of marketing strategies aimed at reviving Gatorade sales. If you've been wondering what all those G ads were for, you're not alone. But odds are, you're also not the target audience.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kick-Ass Shameless Product Placement - Eat, Drink, Shoot, and Drive (repeat)

In a previous post I called out Iron Man 2 for its over-the-top product placement and co-branding deals with the likes of Burger King and Dr. Pepper, but now it seems another movie deserves top honors as shameless promoters of all things bad for you. As described by Brandchannel, the new superhero parody, Kick-Ass (I am sorry to have to even type that awful title) hawks no fewer than 40 brands. Here's how some of the products break down into what's bad for you, bad for the planet, and/or can maim you or others. PepsiCo scores the highest for most brands under one corporate umbrella (5).
Beverages - 8: Amp Energy Drink, Aquafina, Budweiser, Clover Milk (arguable), Hi-C, Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist, Welch's
Junk food - 7: Count Chocula, Dunkin' Donuts, Honey Puffs, Hungry Man, Land-O-Lakes, SunChips, Twizzlers
Cars - 6: Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford, Ford Mustang, GMC, Range Rover, Rolls Royce
Guns - 4: Beretta, Glock, Heckler & Koch, Steyr (I had to look these up)
Sexually-exploitative dolls: Bratz! (OK, I made a special category for this, but they are awful.) 
I suppose that unlike with Iron Man 2, these movie producers could argue that there is no disconnect with superheroes eating and drinking and shooting and driving themselves into oblivion in a parody, but I still say given how popular this movie will be with young people, it's inexcusable. Yes, the film is rated R, but we all know how teenagers flock to R movies to feel grown up. But if these teens use many of the products promoted in the film, they may not get to.

What do you think?

Shame on Susan G. Komen - KFC's Pink Buckets are for Profits, not Breast Cancer

Ok, so since I don't watch TV, I am sometimes a tad behind on the latest marketing travesties. But thanks to free TV on Jet Blue airlines, I can catch up. So while traveling last week I saw the KFC ads asking me to support the breast cancer cause by purchasing a bucket of chicken. It was then I realized what I miss most about TV: the outrage.

Here's the deal: For every pink bucket of cancer-promoting, heart-clogging, animal-torturing fried chicken you purchase, KFC will donate a whopping 50 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Even more disgusting, as the Komen website explains: "Names of breast cancer survivors and those who have lost their battle with breast cancer will be listed on the sides of the bucket." (Is that kind of like a war memorial?)

So I was happy this morning to sign Breast Cancer Action's petition to ask both KFC and Susan G. Komen to stop "pinkwashing" -- Breast Cancer Action's term for exploiting breast cancer victims in the name of charity. For the complete pinkwashing treatment, you really must visit KFC's Buckets for the Cure.

Then came back this lame reply from Margo Lucero, Susan G. Komen's director of  "Global Corporate Relations" (a bad sign right there), which first simply repeats the verbiage already on the org's website:
Thank you for your e-mail to Susan G. Komen for the Cure® – we do appreciate you taking the time to tell us how you feel about this partnership. You should know that our partnership with KFC is designed to help reach millions of women we might not otherwise reach with breast health education and awareness messages which we consider critical to our mission. This additional outreach is made possible through KFC’s 5,300 restaurants (about 900 of them in communities not yet served by a Komen Affiliate). This partnership also helps us to generate funding toward the nearly $1.5 billion in research and community programs that Komen has funded over 30 years – programs that are literally saving women’s lives through better treatments and early detection.
Next comes the excuses, and the troubling framing of food choices being a matter of personal responsibility, not to mention giving KFC props for providing "healthy" choices and nutrition "advice." (!)
Our partnership focuses on healthy options at KFC – grilled chicken and vegetables, for example. Ultimately, we believe that the decision to maintain a well-balanced diet lies in the hands of the consumer. KFC provides tools to make those choices, by providing a healthy choice menu and advice on its Web site on how consumers can limit fat and calorie consumption in its products.
In other words, we need the cash, so leave us alone. But KFC has the most to gain out of this arrangement. In addition to positive PR, the campaign will of course encourage more purchases, and 50 cents a bucket is well, just a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, KFC's parent company, Yum Brands posted an impressive 10 percent increase in profits in the first quarter while revenue topped $2 billion.

You can sign Breast Cancer Action's petition here and find them on Facebook here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How did the American Dietetic Association get taken over by Big Food?

A colleague sent me this image of the tote bag from the 2008 American Dietetic Association annual meeting. Is it any wonder why Americans are confused about how to eat when the nation's top nutrition-advice professional group has been co-opted by the very corporations making people sick?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Iron Man 2: Junk Food Marketing at a Theater Near You

The opening of the next installment in the blockbuster Iron Man franchise may still be a few weeks away (May 7), but the promotions are in full swing. As Advertising Age describes today, the movie has attracted more than $100 million in media buys, retail tie-ins, and giveaways. Of the ten brands listed in the Ad Age article, five promote foods that are are not exactly conducive to Iron Man's heroic image. But who cares about the disconnect, with so many dollars up for grabs. And of course, with so many youngsters likely to see the film, the brand loyalty-building potential is key.

Here, as Ad Age describes them, are the five shameless product placements / co-branding deals:
A returning sponsor from 2008 (and a co-star in a key scene in which Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark requests a cheeseburger that happens to come from the home of the Whopper), Burger King is upping its "Iron Man" marketing machinery this time around with a major company-wide push that kicks off April 26. The fast-feeder will feature an "Iron Man 2"-branded sandwich, the "Whiplash Whopper," and eight film-related toys -- four for boys and four for girls. A bevy of TV ads targeted separately toward adults and kids will roll out as well, in addition to a heavy online presence at 
Another repeat partner, 7-Eleven, is executing several marketing firsts on Marvel's behalf, including its first movie tie-in TV ad to promote its custom "Iron Man" straws, Big Gulp cups and other merchandise, as well as a Live Like a Billionaire Sweepstakes for The initiative will be supported with radio and web ads as well as a presence on 7-Eleven's in-store TV network.
Tony Stark sandwiches? Land O'Frost lunchmeats are back with a major two-and-a-half month push that will feature "Iron Man" sweepstakes, TV ads, print placement in major titles such as Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal and an in-store blitz that includes 10 million Land O'Frost packages and point-of-sale materials such as life-size Tony Stark standees.

Dr Pepper has already kicked off a three-month ad and retail campaign that includes 14 collectible cans and a series of TV ads featuring "Iron Man" creator Stan Lee. Mr. Fleming told Ad Age that "Iron Man 2" represents the brand's first big movie partnership since 2008's "Indiana Jones & the Crystal Skull." Even the movie's director, Jon Favreau, got with the program, posting pictures of the cans on his Twitter feed.


For its first "Iron Man" campaign, Hershey's is using its Reese's brand to engage fans in the Marvel universe, much as it did with Warner Bros. for 2008's "The Dark Knight." The peanut-butter cup is sponsoring a sweepstakes offering fans a chance to win a walk-on role in an upcoming Marvel movie, and is using "Iron Man 2"-branded packaging in the U.S. and over a dozen global territories. The extensive effort will continue through the end of September.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Lame response from Yale PR office re: PepsiCo / medical school deal

Here is what I received from Yale after I signed the petition at to ask the Yale School of Medicine to end its deal with PepsiCo, which I wrote about here and here.
Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the Yale School of Medicine. Dean Alpern has asked the Office of Public Affairs to respond, since you refer to a recent news release which we issued.

The Yale MD/PhD Program is funded by many different public, corporate and private sources. However none of the donors can influence the content - or compromise the quality - of the program, which is considered one of the most rigorous in the country. For almost 200 years, the Yale School of Medicine has maintained the highest standards of academic and research integrity. The nutritional research conducted by Yale clinical scientists addresses important diseases including metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity.

Only through the generosity of our many donors can Yale School of Medicine continue to push the frontiers of clinical research and translational medicine.


Charles Robin Hogen Œ70)
Deputy Director of Public Affairs
Yale University
So let's write directly to Robin and explain that why this won't cut it.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Yale / PepsiCo Deal Making for Bad PR in Wall Street Journal and Yale Daily News

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the soda and snack-food giant PepsiCo had bought a piece of the Yale School of Medicine (my alma mater - MPH, 1990) by funding a "lab" and a fellowship program. Earlier this week, the Yale Daily News reported, "Critics fizz over Pepsi Gift." In that article, we learn part of the price tag for the sell-out:
These activists have criticized the soft-drink giant’s decision in December to sponsor a graduate fellowship in the school’s M.D.-Ph.D. program, worth $250,000 over five years, for students who want to perform research on nutrition and obesity-related diseases.
Really, only $50K a year? That's a pretty cheap price for a company that netted $1.7 billion in one quarter of 2009. If Yale is going to sell its good name, maybe they could negotiate a better deal than that.

But the price to pay may be higher in bad public relations. It's one thing for the school newspaper to raise questions, but today, the Wall Street Journal, the nation's most respected business voice took notice. In an opinion piece entitled, "Boola Moolah! Food Fight at Yale," Eric Felten writes:
PepsiCo is finding out just how hard it is to appease the nutritionistas. Two weeks ago the company was getting kudos in the New Haven Register for setting up a healthy-eating research lab at Yale's commercial Science Park; for putting a quarter of a million dollars into a doctoral-student fellowship in obesity studies at the Yale School of Medicine; and for agreeing to limit the calories in drinks it sells in schools. "World gets Healthier (Pepsi) Generation" raved the Register's headline. By this week the cola and snack conglomerate found itself getting smacked for the same good deeds. "Critics fizz over Pepsi gift" was the headline in Monday's Yale Daily News, reporting that activists are accusing the university of selling out for a few soda-stained dollars. Michele Simon, a Yale School of Public Health grad, was perfectly aghast that her alma mater would have anything to do with such merchants of death: "They own Cheetos, for God's sake."
Yale's School of Medicine dean replied soothingly that the arrangement is "perfectly ethical"—and there's no reason to doubt that. We aren't likely to see journal articles flowing from Pepsi Scholars documenting the salubrious properties of high-fructose corn syrup. 
The WSJ then hits the nail on the head: 
Still, Yale isn't quite as innocent here as the administration makes out. The Yale Bowl could be renamed PepsiCo Stadium and there would be no suggestion that the arrangement was anything but a mercenary one—a straightforward advertising deal. But the corporate naming game has different implications when it invades the tweedier precincts of campus. When a business gets its name worked into the academic fabric of a school, it is buying something more than a place to slap a corporate insignia. There is the implication that the firm is a partner in the intellectual enterprise.
What both papers fail to mention is that the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, frequently critical of Big Food, is housed at Yale, so it's hard to view PepsiCo's motives as pure. With this latest bad press, maybe the powers that be at both Yale HQ and the medical school will see how stupid this move was. It hardly seems worthy of one fellowship.

Also see how the Yale Daily Journal story got spun on the MSNBC web site in an article somewhat mis-titled, "Yale Takes Heat for Pepsi-Funded Obesity Study."

Please share these articles with others to help keep the pressure on Yale to end this ill-conceived deal. Also, email medical school Dean Robert J. Alpern and/or sign the petition at Thank you!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Why it's Time to Retire Ronald McDonald - my media statement

Here is what I said at yesterday's press conference / retirement party for Ronald McDonald:

We know Ronald McDonald is everywhere, especially where ever kids are. Why target kids? For starters, children under age twelve command up to $50 billion in direct purchasing power, and influence $670 billion in family purchases.

And McDonald’s knows that vulnerable children are the perfect advertising audience, since they don’t even know they’re being marketed to. Children under the age of eight do not have the cognitive capacity to understand that Ronald is trying to sell them something; they just know they love the friendly clown.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that “advertising directed toward children is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age.”
The First Amendment, which marketers often try to hide behind, does not protect deceptive advertising, which means McDonald’s is on treacherous legal ground and it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up to Ronald.
McDonald’s knows that brand loyalties established in childhood last a lifetime. Get them while they are young, and you’ve got them hooked for life.
But children aren’t just little adults. Their minds are still forming, making them especially vulnerable to the manipulations of marketing, and of course, their growing bodies need optimum nutrition, not Happy Meals.

But what about the parents, I hear all too often. After all, kids don’t drive themselves to McDonald’s or purchase those Happy Meals themselves. Any parent can tell you how difficult it is, after a long day at work, to resist the pestering, sometimes daily, by their children to take them to McDonald’s, usually just because of the lure of the toys, and of course, the clown.

And what better way to bypass parents and market directly to children than through a clown – the icon of circuses and children’s parties.

But parents have a right to raise their children in a safe environment, without constantly worrying about predatory corporate marketing. And children have the right not to be preyed upon by a clown with a corporate agenda. That’s why McDonald’s should retire Ronald.

Please visit: Retire Ronald to support this important campaign. Thank you.