At a recent summit on childhood obesity, the first lady announced a shift in her well-known Let’s Move campaign — away from food reform and toward an increased focus on exercise. Instead of “forcing [children] to eat their vegetables,” she told her audience, “it’s getting them to go out there and have fun.” Yes, you heard that right. The first lady actually said that eating vegetables is a chore. And that playing is a preferable focus for her campaign because it’s easier. Read rest at Grist…
Posts Tagged ‘childhood obesity’
Marion Nestle, the author of Food Politics, recently got a reminder that food is indeed political, right up to the nation’s highest office. On November 30, the first lady made a speech in which she announced that her Let’s Move campaign (on childhood obesity) would have a renewed focus on physical fitness, to combat “the crisis of inactivity that we see among our kids.”
A colleague sent me this hilarious email message from one Tom Forsythe, vice president of corporate communications at General Mills. It seems that the mega cereal company found itself on the receiving end of a barrage of emails complaining about its opposition to the voluntary marketing to children guidelines proposed by the federal government. (I wrote about Big Food’s lobbying assault recently for Food Safety News.) So what else is the maker of Reese’s Puffs and Lucky Charms to do but put its PR machine into overdrive by explaining itself. Here is the company’s pathetic attempt in its entirety.
The kind folks at Nourish interviewed me recently. Here it is, cross-posted from their site.
How does marketing influence what we eat?
Michele Simon: It’s quite simple. Food companies convince us to buy unhealthy foods with very sophisticated marketing plans that target specific populations, including youth. Companies want to get children hooked on their brands early so that they will win over life-long customers. The industry says we advocates have no “proof” that food marketing influences people’s eating habits, but if marketing didn’t work, why would food companies spend billions of dollars a year doing it?
The following op-ed was recently published in numerous newspapers across the country through McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
When Michelle Obama first announced her Let’s Move program to end childhood obesity “within a generation” last year, I tried to remain open-minded. Like many others, I was happy to have the First Lady bring attention to this important problem. And there’s no doubt that her leadership has helped, for example, to get Congress to make improvements to school meals. But I remained concerned that the White House was reluctant to take on the food industry in any meaningful way. It seems that things are worse than I thought.
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. Continue reading →
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?
Under the heading, “A Personal Perspective,” here is just a sampling of what PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi had to say: (her entire missive is on pages 44-5 of the report)
At the heart of America’s obesity epidemic us achieving a balance between the calories we put into our bodies and the calories we burn. It’s a simple equation but a complex challenge that companies must help their employees and consumers to overcome….
We firmly believe companies have a responsibility to provide consumers with more information and more choices so they can make better decisions… I believe the food industry can play a leading role in this area. In fact, we must play a leading role… It’s a challenge, but increasingly PepsiCo and other companies recognize and accept our responsibility to help our associates and consumers succeed.
OK, so this rhetoric is certainly nothing new and on its own reads like the usual PR-speak that we’ve come to expect from the likes of the maker of Cheetos and Mountain Dew. But let’s place these remarks into context. This report, which has been published annually for the past seven years, is put out by the organization, Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) a fairly well-known public health nonprofit based in Washington, DC. Obesity is one of TFAH’s several issue areas and they describe themselves as a “non-partisan organization dedicated to saving lives by protecting the health of every community and working to make disease prevention a national priority.” Noble enough.
This report gets a lot of press each year and is especially popular for how it ranks each state according to its obesity statistics. It also provides federal and state policy progress in a variety of areas, is fairly comprehensive, and relies heavily on government sources. In other words, the document makes a major contribution to the national conversation regarding obesity prevention and public policy.
Moreover, the report is co-published by its funder, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) the nation’s largest healthcare foundation. One of RWJF’s most ambitious goals is to “reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015.” Since 2007, the foundation has backed that up with an impressive $500 million in grants to myriad programs around the nation. These days, it’s hard to run into a childhood obesity prevention program that isn’t funded by RWJF.
So how did the nation’s largest healthcare funder and a prominent public health organization let the nation’s largest food company get airtime in their annual obesity report? Good question.
In the introduction to the report is this attempted explanation: “TFAH asked the following policy-makers and experts in the field of obesity to offer their perspectives on what needs to be done to address the obesity crisis in the United States.” And then PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is listed among other contributors including Senator Tom Harkin and Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity. That’s quite a coup, for CEO Nooyi to be listed among the very same experts who are fighting PepsiCo’s lobbying efforts.
Reporter Melanie Warner, who just published an excellent piece about this at BNET, (Obesity Report Chronicles the Sad State of America — and Tells Us How Great PepsiCo Is) asked TFAH to explain itself. Here is what she learned:
Laura Segal, spokesperson for the Trust for America’s Health, says that having Nooyi’s comments in the report was an innocent attempt to have the “industry perspective” and not the result of any shady financial relationship. “We reached out to a number of companies and Pepsi was the first one to respond. We want to represent a range of opinions and the industry segment is a significant component of dealing with obesity,” says Segal.
Harold Goldstein (who gets the credit for first sounding the alarm) sees this incident as part of a troubling trend:
There seems to be a growing interest among public health organizations to appear “unbiased” when discussing obesity prevention by providing a forum for industry. It would be the equivalent of providing a forum for the tobacco industry to espouse their “personal responsibility” message in reports on smoking-related deaths.
As a national public health organization, I would have hoped TFAH would provide a clear and scientifically based public health perspective on issues like personal responsibility, rather than simply providing a forum for dissenting perspectives.
Also, the placement of the PepsiCo text is either suspect or ironic. It comes right after two pages describing recent efforts by various states to enact soda taxes, a contentious issue that PepsiCo lobbies hard against, despite mounting evidence that it may be one of the most effective policies available. Recognizing the connection, Harold Goldstein describes what Nooyi left out of her statement:
She doesn’t mention the highly sophisticated multimillion dollar national marketing and lobbying campaign they have undertaken to promote themselves as good corporate citizens and undermine efforts to establish state and local policies to reduce consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, which have been the single leading contributor to the obesity epidemic.
It’s bad enough when the government invites industry executives to “workshops” on food marketing, and for years we have seen corporate sponsorships of nonprofits such as the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association. But this hurts even more, because it was unexpected. If we can’t even read a major public health report on obesity data and policy solutions without running into a PR statement by Big Food, then no place is safe.
As Melanie Warner points out: “the inclusion of Nooyi’s remarks in a public health report feels a bit like if Congress were to suddenly decide to give BP several pages with which to defend itself in forthcoming congressional reports on the oil spill.”
While most of the information contained within the report may still be reliable, the fact that PepsiCo was allowed to participate also raises the question, what other editorial decisions were made that might have been favorable to the food industry? We’ll never know, and that’s the heart of the problem: Once the door is open to providing industry a forum in a public health context, no longer can we trust that we are getting the best information available from those sources.
Finally, I asked Marion Nestle for her reaction:
By this time, research has clearly demonstrated that partnerships and alliances of health organizations with food companies benefits the food companies far more than the health organizations. The goals of public health and food companies differ. Food companies enter such alliances for public relations and to deflect public attention from the need to regulate their marketing practices. RWJF ought to be well aware of the risk of such alliances and to protect its integrity against them.
What do you think? It would be great to hear from RWJF grantees. You can make comments on this blog anonymously if you prefer.
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.
Yesterday, I posted the press release from Santa Clara County Supervisor (and Board President) Ken Yeager’s office celebrating the passage of an ordinance that limits to use of toys and other incentives to fast food that meet certain nutrition criteria. As Supervisor Yeager put it:
This ordinance levels the playing field. 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.
any toy, game, trading card, admission ticket or other consumer product, whether physical or digital…or any coupon, voucher, ticket, token, code, or password redeemable for or granting digital or other access to [those items previously mentioned.]
More than two hundred (200) calories for a Single Food Item, or more than four-hundred eighty-five (485) calories for a Meal;
More than four-hundred and eighty milligrams (480 mg) of sodium for a Single Food Item, or more than six hundred milligrams (600 mg) of sodium for a Meal;
More than thirty-five percent (35%) of total calories from fat.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the restaurant industry sued the County, but we are confident that any case they bring would be unsuccessful. The California Restaurant Association asserted First Amendment challenges to the menu labeling requirements Santa Clara County (and other localities) adopted two years ago, but they now tout menu labeling as an important service they provide to their customers. We hope the restaurant industry would instead put its resources into designing effective ways to promote healthy eating for children.
So just like with menu labeling, a lawsuit is likely to just be a temporary setback. And, by way of responding to those who might think the County has over-reached, he added:
Local government plays an important role in advancing public health. The restaurant industry often works against parents by luring children into developing a taste for unhealthy foods.
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