Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Time to Retire Ronald McDonald

Today, Corporate Accountability International is launching a campaign to ask McDonald's to retire its child-exploiting mascot, Ronald, who for almost 50 years has been getting kids hooked on fast food. I am speaking at a press conference this morning at San Francisco City Hall, while another takes place in New York City, and events are being held at McDonald's outlets around the nation to get the clown to step down. Read more about the campaign at, including poll results that show almost half of Americans agree that it's time to retire Ronald. More to come.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Michelle Obama's Let's Move - Will it Move Industry?

So what's all the fuss over Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity, and will it make a difference? Of course, it's too soon to know for sure (it just launched last month), but early signs indicate more talk than action and deafening silence on corporate marketing practices.

The most obvious problem is framing the issue around obesity, which implies a couple of troubling assumptions. One, that skinny kids are just fine, no matter what garbage they are being fed, and two, that exercise, which has long been a convenient distraction, will continue to be so.

What is Let’s Move?

I highly recommend spending a few minutes perusing the Let's Move website, which is simple, but informative in describing the campaign. (For a more detailed description, read the press release.) While the name Let's Move implies a program all about exercise, in fact 3 of the 4 components have to do with food, which leads me to wonder why the White House wanted that to be less obvious. According to the home page:
Let’s Move will give parents the support they need, provide healthier food in schools, help our kids to be more physically active, and make healthy, affordable food available in every part of our country.
All laudable goals indeed, but notably absent is any criticism of the billions of dollars a year Big Food spends successfully convincing both parents and children to eat highly processed junk food and sugary beverages. Michelle Obama may be able to withstand the call of the Happy Meal, but most parents aren't so lucky to have a White House chef at their disposal.

To her credit, the First Lady is saying many good things about parents needing more support. Also, for the first time I heard the phrase "food desert" uttered on national TV. So she really does seem to understand that it's not all about education or personal responsibility.

But how exactly will Mrs. Obama and her husband attempt to end childhood obesity "within a generation." First is the formation of yet another task force. As the President's memo explains, members of the Task Force on Childhood Obesity are to include the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Education, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady. Heavy hitters yes, but might they have just a few other items already on their to-do list?

Also, in key language, the memo explains that "the functions of the Task Force are advisory only," meaning that this body, at the end of the day (or many months), will only make recommendations for another body (Congress?) to then maybe, someday, consider.

Do We Really Need Another Task Force?

The Obama Administration may be surprised (since they are calling it the "first ever") to learn that theirs is not the first federal task force on this issue. The previous administration had a few failed attempts. We already tried the Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity, which the Federal Communications Commission spearheaded. Perhaps it never really went anywhere thanks to its members, who included the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Disney.

Then there was the Food and Drug Administration's Obesity Working Group, which was broader than just childhood obesity, and whose pathetic achievement was the startling discovery (and accompanying silly web-based tool) that "calories count."

But given that we really can't count anything tried under the previous administration, I am willing to wait and see if this task force can come up with something better. It certainly can’t be any worse than the lame "Small Steps" program (still online).

And let's not forget the still active Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, which is comprised of officials from four agencies: the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In December of last year, this body released "tentative proposed nutrition standards" (for food products the government says are A-OK to market to kids) and is planning a final report with recommendations (for voluntary standards) to Congress this July. (Read author and fellow blogger Jill Richardson's excellent description of its public panel and proposed standards)

This is the historical backdrop into which Michelle Obama now brings us Let's Move. It’s not as if we haven’t been here before; she’s building on many failed attempts. But let’s take a closer look at one of the four Let’s Move components – school food.

How to Improve School Nutrition?

Under the "Healthier Schools" tab of the campaign's website, I recognize a few programs that have been out there for some time. For example, the underfunded Healthier US School Challenge and the ineffective Team Nutrition program, both under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that agency whose number one mission is to prop up Big Agriculture. (The USDA also happens to be in charge of school nutrition and other food assistance programs, which has never proven to be a good combination.)

A few things are new under Let’s Move, including doubling the number of schools that meet the Healthier US Schools Challenge and adding 1,000 schools per year for two years after that. And the President proposes to increase the federal budget by $1 billion annually to improve the quality of school meals. This sounds impressive, but as school lunch expert and Chef Ann Cooper pointed out in a recent Washington Post article, a mere 10 percent increase is a drop in the bucket. Currently, we feed 31 million students a day on $9.3 billion, which amounts to only $2.68 per meal. When was the last time you ate a decent lunch less than 3 bucks? (No, the dollar menu meal doesn't count.)

And nowhere is any mention of the ongoing problem of competitive foods, which is government doublespeak for Coke and Pepsi vending machines in every school hallway, Doritos, Milky Way, and Good Humor sold in school stores, not to mention fast food like Pizza Hut that has taken over many school lunchrooms. Maybe that’s because the Obama Administration has decided that the success of Let’s Move depends in part on "the creation of public private partnerships." That sounds familiar.

Working With Industry?

Since signing up for the Let's Move email updates, I haven’t been too impressed. Here are two topics that landed in my in-box last week: Attention Techies! Apps for Healthy Kids Launched Yesterday and Paralympic Games Show All Athletes Can Be Champions. Now please don't send hate mail; I have nothing against apps or the Paralympics, I just don't understand how these concepts will solve childhood obesity “within a generation.”

In an especially bad sign, Michelle Obama is speaking at a gathering of the Grocery Manufacturers Association this Tuesday. As I chronicled in Appetite for Profit, GMA, the lobbying arm of packaged foods conglomerates such as Kraft and PepsiCo has a long history of undermining school nutrition standards, among other positive policies.

As another blogger suggests, Mrs. Obama's own ties to Big Food may explain her deferential treatment of industry. She served on the board of directors of TreeHouse Foods (a spinoff of conglomerate Dean Foods) for two years until 2007, when her husband's presidential campaign became all consuming. This same blogger predicts that at the GMA meeting:
Mrs. Obama will focus on "the pressing need to pursue comprehensive solutions to combat childhood obesity" and call upon food manufacturers to join these efforts by "providing healthier food options and better information about healthy food choices."
But Kraft, PepsiCo, Kellogg's and others have been all over that idea for several years now with their "smart choices" foods and claims of responsible marketing to children through its bogus Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

We won't hear any scolding or warning aimed at industry. Instead, the First Lady will simply ask the major food corporations to jump on the Let's Move bandwagon. And they will do so gladly. With no threats looming (for example, that Congress might pass legislation to restrict marketing to kids) Big Food has nothing to fear; quite the contrary, industry gains positive PR in the process. Indeed, not missing a beat, GMA sent the White House a letter of support for the campaign on the same day that Let's Move launched.

Let’s Move the Corporations Out of Washington

The bottom line for me is that while there are many things to like about Let's Move and it's certainly encouraging for a First Lady to talk about access to fresh, healthy food as a national priority, much of it is still rhetoric we've heard before.

To turn the talk into real action will take a ton of leadership from President Obama and even more political will from Congress. Most importantly, unless and until the ubiquitous junk food marketing stops, both in schools and out, very little of substance will change and we will be back here once again with the next administration's childhood obesity task force.

Let me know what you think.

Postscript (3/17): Michelle Obama tells GMA curb junk food marketing to kids, wants more "healthy food" marketing instead. Read about her talk on Marion Nestle's blog and see the transcript.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Co-optation of the week: Kraft and community gardening

It's hard not to overuse the descriptor Orwellian, but the food industry often leaves me no choice. This story in Brandchannel explains how Kraft Foods is "supporting" community gardening through its Triscuit crackers. As the article describes:
Kraft is making an unusually large commitment to the concept of home farming by offering free basil and dill herb seed cards on four million Triscuit boxes. The brand is also sponsoring an educational website with a wealth of information on how to start a home garden and how to find local community farms.
Even more scary, the phrase "community farms" links to a Kraft web page that invites us to "join the movement" of "home farms" (a phrase new to me) and claims to be partnering with a nonprofit called Urban Farming. No wonder, since their supporters include other massive members of Corporate America such as Home Depot and Starbucks.

Where to even begin? A multinational food conglomerate promoting community gardening? That's like the WTO promoting local currency. Seeds with your Triscuits? Is Kraft really the best source for seeds?

Funny how there are no instructions on Kraft's "home farming" website about exactly how one can grow maltodextrin or monosodium glutamate or even onion powder or palm oil (and/or soybean oil) in one's backyard. But hey, free seeds could get the company to move those four million cracker boxes faster, not to mention garner some positive PR.

This just in: My friend (upon seeing the story) wants to know: But how do I grow Triscuits?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Soda giants team up for school vending PR campaign

This revealing March 9th Ad Age article describes how soft drink giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group have teamed up to run ads showing off about how they are removing sugary soft drinks from schools. The companies claim an 88% decrease in calories since 2004, but some experts are skeptical about the health impact.

And the timing of the ad campaign seems awfully suspicious, as Ad Age notes:
While the school initiative was in place well before the industry was put on the defensive against the proposed taxes, the promotion of the program is certainly well-timed. New York Gov. David Paterson has called for a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, while Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter last week proposed a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages.
The soft drink industry certainly knows how to deflect attention and confuse the issues. Calling their latest "initiative" (is anyone else sick and tired of hearing that word?), "Clear on Calories," Big Soda seems to think that placing calorie numbers on the front of beverage containers and vending machines equals good nutrition and "has painted the voluntary commitment as an answer to First Lady Michelle Obama's call to eradicate childhood obesity." Funny, I don't remember seeing anything about soda calorie labels in the First Lady's program.

The ever-ready with a quote PR guy Kevin Keane, of the American Beverage Association (i.e., lobbying trade group) explains: "These are the fiercest rivals you're going to get. But our companies felt [the campaign] was the strongest way to convey what they'd done and that they'd done it together." How warm and fuzzy. Of course, these same companies have been lobbying together for years to undermine school nutrition policy, so this teamwork is really nothing new.

Fast food race in China: Subway v. McDonalds

As this March 8th Reuters article explains, fast food giant Subway, which currently has only 150 outlets in China compared to McDonald's 2,000, aims to catch up to the golden arches within 10 years. And why not, with a population of 1.3 billion, China's a potential goldmine for sub sales.

"Our biggest challenge is getting customers to try the product," Subway President Fred DeLuca said, adding that they were considering lowering prices to attract more customers.

Yeah, that can be annoying, when people in foreign lands don't understand your bastardized version of food. But the submarine research brain trust is on the job. The company is
testing sandwiches such as Beijing roast duck and local sauces like "hot spicy Szechuan sauce." Guess that makes it local.

Also, and without a hint of irony, DeLuca figures that Subway's emphasis on "fresh eating and lots of vegetables" will help the chain grow as Chinese diners look for healthier options (compared to McDonald's?), with the country becoming aware of obesity. "People are starting to understand there is a bit of a problem. This may match up with our growth trajectory and put us in a position where we can grow quite fast," he said.

So let me get this straight: China had no obesity problem before Western-style fast food and a meat-centered diet was introduced (see T. Colin Campbell's excellent book, The China Study) and now, it's American fast food to the rescue? Oh right, that's the company's solution here at home too.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Another report shows failure of self-regulation in junk food marketing to kids

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, that venerable organization that never seems to tire of studying the same problems over and over again, has once again demonstrated that food and media companies are failing miserably when it comes to improving its marketing practices toward children. The report gives 3/4 of companies reviewed a failing grade for either having weak policies or having no policy whatsoever. The report's poster child (so to speak) is shown here, Chuck E. Cheese's "pizza maker," which doesn't actually make pizza, thankfully.

From the press release is this horrifying product description:
Candy company Topps also got an F. That company makes, among other things, Baby Bottle Pop, a powdered candy sold in a miniature baby bottle, eaten by dipping a candy nipple in a sugary powder and licking it off. Over the years Topps has retained the services of the Jonas Brothers and the Clique Girlz singing groups to convince children to purchase that infantilizing product, whose 140 calories all come from sugar.
Gross. Since this is hardly earth-shattering news, the real question is when we are going to see any political will to do something about it. While Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" program is admirable for its emphasis on school nutrition and food deserts, it's painfully silent on junk food marketing. No amount of exercise can overcome the food habits being pushed on America's kids by Corporate America's billions of advertising dollars. Let's move on that.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

PepsiCo opens "research" center at Yale Medicine - I may return my degree

This is really embarrassing. I attended the Yale School of Public Health back when it was still a separate department within the Yale School of Medicine. I just received my alumni newsletter, only to find out that Yale Medicine has teamed up with soft drink and snack food giant PepsiCo to create a "research laboratory" in Science Park, which is adjacent to Yale's campus.

What will sort of alleged science will this Orwellian place produce? Why, the "development of healthier food and beverage products," what else? But that's not all. It seems that Yale's price tag was a tad higher. To complete the sell-out, PepsciCo is also sponsoring a fellowship in Yale's M.D.-Ph.D. Program. According to the company's press release, "the endowment will specifically fund work that focuses on nutritional research, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity." Just great. Here's how Dr. Robert Alpern, Dean and Ensign Professor at Yale School of Medicine justifies the deal:
PepsiCo's commitment to improving health through proper nutrition is of great importance to the well-being of people in this country and throughout the world. We are delighted that they are expanding their research in this area and that they have chosen Yale as a partner for this endeavor. Extending this partnership to the M.D.-Ph.D. Program represents a visionary investment in one of the finest researcher training programs in the world and thus to the future of science.
Sickening. And ironic since Yale is also the home of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which is fast becoming the nation's leader in the field. I can't help wondering if this is a coincidence, of if PepsiCo figured this was a good way to neutralize the Rudd Center's increasing influence over policies detrimental to the company's bottom line. Let's take, for starters, how Rudd is gaining national expertise on soda taxes, as evidenced by numerous articles penned by Rudd director Kelly Brownell such as this one published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Also making me suspicious is another Yale / PepsiCo connection. When the Rudd Center was first formed, Derek Yach, formerly with the World Health Organization and tobacco control hero, was on staff there. Then in 2007, to the great shock and dismay of public health advocates around the world, he became PepsiCo's Director of Global Health Policy, whatever that means.

And now here he is (second from left, standing), posing with numerous other smiling PepsiCo executives, side by side with Yale School of Medicine faculty members. It's almost like he has returned to buy out his previous company.

Now I understand that everyone is hurting for money these days. The dean whines here about the university's projected 25 percent drop in its endowment for 2009. But really, I don't think that can possibly justify this arrangement. It's not like the alternative was laying off faculty. The alternative was not affiliating with the purveyor of Cheetos and Mountain Dew.

Even though I always say I never learned a damn thing about nutrition at Yale Public Health, at least I could say I went to Yale. But now I am not sure I want to anymore. After writing my book, I admit to being pretty jaded and not easily shocked by industry influence, but this one really hurts. Who can I even complain to? Is nothing off limits to corporate control?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Coca-Cola sees (profit) health in India, China while Americans remain confused

I always say you have to follow the business news to understand what's really going on with corporations; it's the one place they tell the truth. In this revealing interview with Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, Bloomberg explains how the soft drink giant, "has relied on overseas markets to offset at least four years of declining soft-drink volume sales in the U.S." Sound familiar? It should, as it's the exact same strategy as the tobacco and alcohol industries: once sales in the U.S. are saturated, the only place to go is overseas, and the developing world is the last available opportunity for growth.

The article describes Coke's CEO as saying that "emerging-market economies such as China and India are beginning to bounce back quickly, while more developed regions will take longer to recover." Even more chillingly, Kent is directed quoted: "The emerging world is in a healthier situation as we are exiting the tunnel." Of course, he means the tunnel of the recession, but never mind how the health of the "emerging world" is being increasingly threatened thanks to the invasion of U.S.-style fast food, soda, and other non-native foodstuffs, as this 2007 article on childhood obesity in China explains.

As for the lagging economy in the U.S. and other western nations, Coke's chief says that “the consumer is still confused." Yes, we are so confused that we've cut back on drinking sugar water full of chemicals, how very inconvenient for Corporate America. But there's always other nations to exploit.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Great New Resource on Legislation

The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has launched an amazing new searchable database for pending and enacted legislation, both at the federal and state levels. You can search by either state or issue, such as school nutrition or soda taxes. I've been tracking legislation for years on both food and alcohol and I know how limited the tools out there are. This is truly a fantastic contribution to the field of food policy. Check it out here.

Speaking Event Wed March 10 at UC Berkeley

Join me and Jill Richardson, author of Recipe for America. Details here.