Can’t We All Just Get Along? Why Nutrition Professionals and Food Industry Executives Must Coexist Peacefully

by Meghan Johnson

The food industry produces, distributes and markets the majority of what the public consumes. As proponents of a sustainable food system and good nutrition, we (whether we like it or not) are inescapably linked to the food industry. Any efforts we make to influence healthy food purchasing or eating behavior have the potential to be confounded, halted or even enhanced by the industry’s powerful messages.  Considering this, maybe it’s time we look more closely at ways to work together.

On November 5th I attended the annual Friedman Symposium and, while leafing through materials, noticed that The Coca-Cola Company was a presenting sponsor.  In the three months I have been a Friedman student, my professors have cited soda as a contributing cause of the obesity epidemic numerous times, yet the Friedman School still felt it worthwhile to allow Coca-Cola’s name to appear on symposium materials. It may seem contradictory or even hypocritical to do so, but the Friedman School is not the only nutrition entity learning the value of having industry on our side. ConAgra Foods (whose brands include Marie Callender’s, Banquet, Kid Cuisine, Manwich and Slim Jim among others) was a presenting sponsor at this year’s American Dietetic Association Food & Nutrition Conference.

This hand-holding across disciplines is not limited to the US, either. The Guardian recently reported on the United Kingdom’s Department of Health putting fast food companies, like McDonald’s and KFC, and processed food and drink manufacturers, like PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, and Unilever, in an influential position to write government policy on obesity and diet-related disease. Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, the leading liver specialist and (until recently) president of the Royal College of Physicians said, “we are hopeful that engaging with the food industry will lead to changes in the quality and healthiness of the products we and our children eat.”

Big players in the food industry like Pepsi and Unilever control what we are exposed to hundreds of times each day. Billboards catalyze the cravings we get while driving home from work; banner ads on the subway often dictate what we decide to buy for lunch; and commercials tell our children what foods will make them stronger, faster and cooler. So while you may be wondering why so many esteemed players in the nutrition field, including the Friedman School, the American Dietetics Association and the UK’s Department of Health, are all turning to the food industry for their input in matters of health and policy, it’s not hard to see why. Whether we like it or not, we will all deal with the food industry and its powerful grip on American consumers at some point in our careers. Let’s look to ways we can maximize our efforts by working together.

The Atlantic spoke to this issue in a recently published piece called ‘How to Fight Obesity: Befriend the Bad Guys’. The author is Hank Cardello, a former food executive with Coca-Cola, General Mills and Cadbury-Schwepps). Cardello encourages us to look at what we obesity fighters can gain from industry if we stop wasting our time butting heads. His commonsense approach is tough to argue with.

One of my favorite suggestions Cardello makes is to restructure policies so that industry’s needs are brought into better alignment with solving problems. This can be as simple as rewarding industry for doing the right thing. For example, if a company reduces average calories per serving below an agreed-upon target, the company gets a tax cut. Companies that refuse to budge on excess calories get penalized.  It’s all about finding common ground.

He also looks at what may be at the heart of much of this debate: advertising unhealthy food, especially to children. Cardello urges us to reject the idea that advertising is the enemy. Food industry advertising is a $15 billion market; let’s put our heads together to find ways to use that money to communicate our messages too.

The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released a report produced with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson and the Rudd Foundations called Fast Food F.A.C.T.S (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score): Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth.  Some of the findings were hard to stomach. According to their research:

  • The fast food industry alone spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on TV advertising, radio, magazines, outdoor advertising, and other media.
  • The average preschooler (2-5 years) saw 2.8 TV ads for fast food every day in 2009; children (6-11 years) saw 3.5; and teens (12-17 years) saw 4.7.
  • Young people’s exposure to fast food TV ads has increased. Compared to 2003, preschoolers viewed 21% more fast food ads in 2009, children viewed 34% more, and teens viewed 39% more.
  • McDonald’s and Burger King have pledged to improve food marketing to children. However, both restaurants increased their volume of TV advertising from 2007 to 2009. Preschoolers saw 21% more ads for McDonald’s and 9% more for Burger King, and children viewed 26% more ads for McDonald’s and 10% more for Burger King.

It’s hard to imagine finding a middle ground with food companies and nutrition professionals when presented with such steep barriers.  But, the alternative is to waste energy fighting an up-hill battle.

Cardello offers one last piece of advice for those of us trying to trailblaze some semblance of compromise: speak their language.  Show industry execs why promoting health is better for their bottom lines. Quoting child obesity statistics, while terrifying to us, may mean nothing to someone who spends his days approving budgets and cutting expenditures. Instead, point out the increased profit margins for companies like Danone and Nestlé that have shifted their marketing to healthier products. And that companies like Walmart have received great publicity by unveiling efforts to source more organic foods.

Attending this year’s Friedman Symposium was Douglas Balentine, Director of Nutrition for Unilever North America. Mr. Balentine told us that, on any given day, 2 billion people interact with a Unilever product. You don’t want to pick a fight with a company with that kind of reach. And doing what’s right is important to Unilever.  The company (owner of Hellman’s, Wishbone, Skippy and Ragu pasta sauce to name a few) is making strides in the right direction.  For starters, they have lowered sodium in their best-selling pasta sauces and have taken all partially hydrogenated oils out of their spreadable margarines to eliminate trans fats. At their level of distribution, even small changes can have a huge impact.

Maybe the UK has the right idea by incorporating the input of industry executives when creating policies, rather than wasting precious time trying to administer and regulate top-down mandates that give companies no incentive to comply. It’s time to stop looking at compromising as selling out. The reality is that food companies are not going anywhere. If we are to have victories in nutrition content and messaging, we will find the battles more easily won if we can have them on common ground.

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