March 16, 2013
By MICHAEL MUDD
A COURT has struck down, at least for now, New York City’s attempt to slow the growth of obesity by limiting the portion size of sweetened beverages.
But governments should not be deterred by this and should step up their efforts to protect the public health by limiting the marketing tactics of food companies. Anyone who believes these interventions are uncalled-for doesn’t know the industry the way I do.
I was part of the packaged food and beverage business for more than 20 years. As the national waistline grew, the industry sought refuge in the fact that the obesity epidemic has many causes. It has insistently used that fact to fight off government regulators and justify why it should not have to change what it sells or how it sells it.
With tobacco, the link between product and disease is direct and singular. But it is less clear with food: the rise in obesity is the result of multiple factors. Suburban life discourages walking. Escalators have replaced stairs. Schools have eliminated gym class. Kids play video games now, not kickball. Even the vast increase in two-income households over the past 40 years has had an impact, discouraging cooking and increasing reliance on packaged foods and chain restaurants. It all adds up.
So when it’s time to pick the guilty party out of the police lineup, the food industry cries foul whenever critics point to it. “Hey,” the industry complains, “why pick on us when everybody in the lineup is guilty?”
But that’s not true. Everybody in this lineup of cumulative social and environmental changes may have played a role in the growth of obesity, but none are culpable the way the big food processors and soft drink companies are.
The industry is guilty because it knew what the consequences of its actions might be. Large food processors employed a flock of Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists. The connection between calorie consumption and weight gain was always as plain as the number on the bathroom scale. But instead of acknowledging this and taking corrective action to sell a better product more responsibly, food processors played innocent by blending in with the crowd of causes. It’s time to end the charade and mandate the needed changes that the industry has refused to make.
For much of my time in the food business, I defended the status quo. Then, as obesity’s prevalence increased in the ’90s, I argued for change. Today, more than eight years after leaving the industry because of its failure to reform, I still struggle with the paradox that defined the business. In so many other ways, these are good people. But, little by little, they strayed from the honorable business of feeding people appropriately to the deplorable mission of “increasing shareholder value” by enticing people to consume more and more high-margin, low-nutrition branded products.
Confronted with this, the executives who run these companies like to say they don’t create demand, they try only to satisfy it. “We’re just giving people what they want. We’re not putting a gun to their heads,” the refrain goes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years, relentless efforts were made to increase the number of “eating occasions” people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.
Even as awareness grew of the health consequences of obesity, the industry continued to emphasize cheap and often unhealthful ingredients that maximized taste, shelf life and profits. More egregious, it aggressively promoted larger portion sizes, one of the few ways left to increase overall consumption in an otherwise slow-growth market.
All this tells us two very important things. First, the food industry knows it has a problem, potentially a very big one if the forces against it ever do coalesce effectively. So, in maneuvering for protection by managing public opinion and policy formation, the industry will always try to camouflage itself as just one of many causes in the growth of obesity. Just as the National Rifle Association points to mental illness and violent video games as a way to deflect attention from the inherent dangers of guns, food processors will wring their hands about physical activity and, yes, video games. We shouldn’t fall for it.
Next time you hear of a big food or beverage company sponsoring an after-school physical activity program in your community, you can be sure they’ll say it’s to show “our company’s concern for our kids’ health.” But the real intent is to look angelic while making consumers feel good about the brand and drawing attention away from the unhealthful nature of the company’s products. “Posing for holy cards,” as one of my colleagues used to put it.
Second, as more is revealed about their deliberate indifference, food companies must be made to change their worst practices. After years of foot dragging and hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying fees, it’s obvious the industry won’t change on its own. Quite simply, change will have to be forced — by public pressure, media attention, regulation and litigation. Yes, companies will point to some “better-for-you” versions of their traditional products and they will trot out a few smaller-portion-size packages to show the “choices” they’ve provided. But left alone, the industry will concentrate on selling its problematic core product lines.
The needed changes could take many forms. Here are some of the most promising:
Levy federal and state excise taxes on sugared beverages and a few categories — snack foods, candy, sweet baked goods — that most undermine health. These taxes could help pay for education programs, subsidize the healthiest foods for low-income individuals and, maybe, discourage consumption.
Make mandatory the federal guidelines for marketing food to children that were proposed in 2011. These guidelines — written jointly by the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Agriculture — were only to be voluntary, and still lobbyists for the food industry persuaded Congress to block them.
Communicate more actively with people about their food choices. Require prominent disclosure of calories for every item on the menu in chain restaurants and vending machines. And create a front-of-the-package labeling system to encourage healthier food choices. Finally, the government should back community-based campaigns to inform and inspire better eating and more exercise.
I left the industry when I finally had to acknowledge that reform would never come from within. I could no longer accept a business model that put profits over public health — and no one else should have to, either.