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.

The member companies are pledging to do three things: One, develop and introduce lower-calorie options. But if they are making new products, isn't that actually adding calories to the food supply? Next, for current products, where possible they will lower calorie content. When is it not possible? Why, when Big Food says so, that's when.

Finally, they will reduce portion sizes. Now all of the member companies are packaged food manufacturers, not restaurants, where portion sizes are out of control and where Americans spend roughly half of their food dollars. So this just means that we might get more products like the current "100-calorie packs," which just encourages more packaging waste, at higher prices to boot.

As this is just another voluntary promise by industry, how will we even know if the companies follow through? No worries, they thought of everything. As the press release explains, under the agreement, "the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation will report annually to the Partnership on the progress that we are making toward this pledge." So I guess that should cover it.

What's going on here should be obvious to anyone who has been paying close attention to food industry tactics over the past few years. It's certainly no coincidence that this announcement comes on the heels of last week's report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Indeed, with less than 5 business days in between the two media events, the memory of that comprehensive report, containing 70 policy recommendations is now conveniently overshadowed by Big Food's promise of 1.5 trillion fewer calories. That's industry math: 1.5 trillion beats 70.

But before we toss the Task Force report into the historical dust bin, let's see which policy recommendations might have gotten Big Food upset. First there's # 2.6: "All media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their popular characters to food and beverage products that are healthy." Uh oh, that could mean no more SpongeBob Squarepants Popsicles, that would stink.

Then there's # 2.7: "The food and beverage industry and the media and entertainment industry should jointly adopt meaningful, uniform nutrition standards for marketing food and beverages to children, as well as a uniform standard for what constitutes marketing to children." Meaningful? Uniform? Those are dirty words to Big Food. They prefer words like "try" and "reduce."

Oh and they really don't like recommendation # 2.9: "If voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to children do not yield substantial results, the FCC could consider revisiting and modernizing rules on commercial time during children’s programming." What was that, the FCC? Why, that's an actual government agency named in the report, how did that happen?

Food companies that market to children (including pledgers Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo) are afraid that Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign might result in actual policy making, otherwise known as laws and regulations, those things that government agencies make when they are doing their jobs.

Every so often, when the threat of government regulation rears its ugly head, the food industry pounces on it to beat it down, by announcing new and improved promises, pledges, commitments, initiatives, partnerships, or coalitions at just the right time, all aimed at keeping government at bay and the public convinced that they are acting responsibly.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University called it right when he told the Wall Street Journal that this move was little more than public relations:
This is where the market is taking these companies anyway, and I don't know that this represents much of a concession. I also believe that the motive behind this is to fight off government regulation by creating the appearance of voluntary changes by the industry.
Sadly, this time industry made sure that government came on board even before the announcement. At the press conference, Michelle Obama predicted, "In the weeks and months to come, we expect to hear more announcements regarding specific steps on reducing sugar, fat and sodium in the foods that our children eat." Great, brace yourself for even more PR and empty promises. 

If I was skeptical about the likely success of Let's Move before, I am downright cynical now.

Post-script: For a somewhat less cynical viewpoint, see Marion Nestle's blog post.


graceonline said...

Thank you so much for digging under the hype. If the big food and beverage companies were serious about the health of our children, they would reduce the calories, fat and sugars in their existing products, starting right now.

As you point out, why create new products? The problem is the junk on the shelves today.

And why wait five years, for goodness sake? In five years, an entire generation of five year olds will be hopelessly hooked on the heavily sugared, high fat foods their parents feed them. In five years, today's sugar-addicted fifteen year olds will be buying their own groceries. Some will be starting families and, too often, unwittingly pushing junk on their own children.

Where's the urgency we so sorely need? Where is the deep human understanding, on the part of corporate moguls, that their greedy marketing and manufacturing decisions are killing our children?

Anthro said...

I read Marion Nestle's post first and felt a glimmer (a SMALL glimmer) of hope, but in the end, I'm with you on this one and as Marion has linked to your column, I don't think she is far behind.

I can't add much to the comments of Kathryn Grace--she must be my long lost twin. Thanks for saying it so well Ms. Grace.

Anonymous said...

For Pete's sake, can't they at least stop the food companies from advertising junk food directly to children? Watch Nickelodeon for 30 minutes and you will lose count of how many sugary cereal and snack food commercials that kids are being bombarded with, and they dazzle these kids with bright colors, cartoon characters, etc. I remember as a kid being so upset because I was out sick the day Ronald McDonald came to my school to "visit us." As an adult I look back and think what a sucker I was, but these food companies marketing really works and they know it. Stop the marketing and you will stop a lot of the problems with childhood obesity.

Nkki.Rose said...

Excellent report, as always Michele! Big Food is on a major rampage. And our government agencies in charge of regulating this are...their hostage? Do they forget who pays their salaries? At least the checks our gov't issues to them, that is. The more people know about this, the better we can find ways to stop the nonsense. And I suppose if Sponge Bob ever ate an orange, children would be shocked. Thanks for keeping us informed.

hildreth said...

Five years is just ridiculous, and as far as children are concerned, it needs to be an all-or-nothing effort from Big Food, and called out as such. Perhaps by the people we've hired to look out for us?

Hearing Big Food use the words 'try' and 'help' is like hearing BP saying an underwater oil geyser will 'never' happen.

maryluke said...

Great article exposing the big food and beverage companies interception of a White House attempt to improve the food sold in America. They effectively halted any real impact the First Lady might have had on food in America.

What the big food and beverage companies sell is neither nutritious nor food. It is therefore either them or us and we're losing. Their fake food and drinks are omnipresent and their advertising pervasive.

We must open our eyes. We must learn and SHARE in vivid terms the health cost of desiring processed foods, so that we are no longer swayed by their images.

"Processed foods" are animal feed for humans. The big food and beverage companies have proven they will sell ANYTHING for profit, even if it reduces the population to large slugs.

The truth is processing food reduces its nutritional value. Period. These companies were built by creating convenient food for the (government) troops. They have worked together from the start. So its not a surprise that government agencies like the FDA are ineffective.

There is no law against lobbying, and the big food and beverage companies know that lining pockets is the best way to build a puppet.

Convenience at any cost is part of the problem. The environmental cost of processing food is enormous. It poisons land and water.

Reduce your dependence on supermarkets. Shop at the farmers market and buy local.
Take up organic gardening and teach your children how to cook and bake. Read and stop watching television.

Teach your kids to SHUN the big food and beverage industry by literally turning their backs on the ads or products when they find them. Make a game of never speaking the name of a food or beverage brand or processed product. Changing the words we use is empowering and easier than you think.

The Amish say when you look at something, pick it up, speak of it, give it attention, you take it into your heart. So shunning removes it from your heart by not giving it attention.

As a society we must learn to shun the things that harm us. Our survival depends upon it. Shunning is effective passive resistance at its best.

Unknown said...

Ah, yes, the old ‘promises, promises, mañana, mañana’ mantra. More hopey-changey puffery from the Oblahblah PR team and their corporate masters….Makes no difference whether it’s Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Oil, or Big Banks, but DO stay on their backs, Michele! Appreciate your hard work and investigative reporting.

Sara Weber said...

Well said! Ironic that their solution of reducing calories will actually increase their bottom line b/c they can charge more per Kcal and the wealthy will buy their entire paycheck's worth of 100 cal packs and low calorie bread.

anthro said...

I've been enjoying these comments immensely--lots of wisdom and good advice. I'll just emphasize two things:

1) They can't market nearly as much to children who don't watch television--KILL YOUR TELEVISION. After a month, you won't miss it. Don't substitute with endless videos especially if they are linked to popular characters. If an when they DO watch, take the commercials apart and explain EXACTLY how they are tying to get kids to do what is BAD for them. My kids got to good at this that they pretty much refused to buy anything that was advertised and lost interest in the programs as a result--at which point we killed the television--good riddance.

2) Take a look at your own investments. Do you own stock in any of these companies? Even if it's a mutual fund or 401k, all those little bits add up to a whopping pile of money for dividends for large shareholders. You can't be part of the solution if you are helping them. The bottom line is profit because that's what shareholders demand. My money's in real estate--not so hot right now, but always pays off in the long term.

I recently ended a friendship of a few years because the person liked to complain about junk food but then bragged how much he was earning on his McDonald's stock. Such hypocrisy!

Unknown said...

So what's the problem? Just shop for raw foods, wash them, properly prepare them and feed them to your family. It's not government's responsibility to legislate what you eat, it's the PARENT'S RESPONSIBILITY to teach good nutrition. Oh, that means work, I'm sorry. You can't watch the kids all the time, but you don't need to stop by McDonalds on the way home, you can carry a container of chilled carrots and cauliflower for the snack. If you want, broil up some shish cabobs. Teach, don't legislate.

Michele Simon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michele Simon said...

Jon, no one is saying that parents shouldn't do all of these things. The problem that the government DOES legislate already, in the wrongs ways, which make healthy food unavailable to most working class families. For most people, all they have is McDonald's or the corner liquor store, so we can't just educate. We need better laws so make it easier for parents to do the right thing, and for themselves too!

Anonymous said...

I hate to say this I think the Mrs. is just kept in a pumpkin shell. Obama is deep into biotech in my opinion. After all he appointed Siddiqui and was pushing the H1N1 shot.

Maybe write a letter to the big 16 and challenge them to serve organic popcorn at the movies with real organic butter and to get a cartoon character on the product. Tell them that you sent it to the 16 and want to see who can come up with it first in the movie theaters. Pepsi had a natural soda in glass not too long ago; haven't seen it since. Nooyi was talking up a storm about Pepsi wanting to go "good", maybe she would be a good prospect. Don't they own Lays?

Anonymous said...

Wait, why does this announcement by big food companies mean that the other recommendations from the Task Force won't still be pursued by the White House? I mean, especially since, the White House who called for the Task Force to begin with?

Michele Simon said...

It's true that the White House recs could still be pursued and perhaps some of them will, especially since many were non-threatening to Big Food. My point was only that these announcement never take place in a vacuum and it's important to understand the broader policy context. And as long as the White House is supporting industry voluntary measures like this one, it's highly unlikely that policy will happen.

Denise said...

We don't need more government regulation. Parents need to learn how to Just Say No. It's our responsibility as parents to ensure they are learning good eating habits. When our children watch tv shows and commercials that market their crap to our kids, we need to be able to point out to them that those companies care nothing for their health and well-being. Our children understand more than we think, and if we can train them to be responsible citizens, then certainly we can train them to be responsible eaters.

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