business news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, MNB took note of a Wall Street Journal story about how the Obama administration has released a 120-page report “calling on food makers to curb marketing of unhealthy foods to children” as “part of a broad assault against childhood obesity.” If voluntary efforts do not work, the report said, federal regulators should consider stronger rules in this area.

Ironically, the report was being issued at the same time as David Mackay, president/CEO of Kellogg Co., said that if the food industry is to be effective in helping fight the childhood obesity issue, there needs be be “a level playing field,” and everybody needs to get on board. If only 70 percent of companies work to improve the nutritional content of their products, it will prompt government intervention, he said.

My response to this:

There is no question that childhood obesity is a problem that needs to be attacked, but I can tell you just from the emails I receive that there are a lot of people with no appetite for government telling companies what to sell and how to sell it, who prefer for the market to make these determinations.

I don’t agree with them. I feel strongly that companies need to do the right thing on their own. But if there are foods and products out there that are harmful to children in both the short-term and long-term, and if it is perceived that companies are exploiting children in some way, I’m not sure it is outside the mission of government to step in and protect them. I’d like to think that parents would do it on their own...but the number of obese parents out there suggests that not all adults know best on this issue. The human costs - and the health care costs - are just too great to ignore.

To say that I got smacked around by many MNB readers for this POV would be, well, something of an understatement. Let me share with you just a few of the emails...

MNB user Tom Robbins wrote:

We (people my age) didn't need to government to tell us what to eat when growing up. We aren't obese! Parents need to parent and take responsibility for their children. Get the government out of our lives.

Another MNB user wrote:

My oh my... you have decided to support government intervention .... did you hear!!!.......  next week the government is going to announce that all wine now should have no alcohol in it. ... and if the wineries do not take out the alcohol the new government regulations will not allow wine to be sold in supermarkets because too many adults shop there.... and temptations would be too great!  I’d like to think that parents would do it on their own...but the number of alcoholic parents out there suggests that not all adults know best on this issue. The human costs - and the health care costs - are just too great to ignore.

Do I detect some oblique sarcasm?

MNB user Bill Welch wrote:

Rarely do you say something or at lease imply something that is so diametrically opposed to my core values.  Please see Personal Freedom, Individual Responsibility and Free Trade.

Despite your CYA double speak I am sure it is outside the mission of government to restrict the sale of food based on its relative nutritional value ... If sugar coated cereals are not good for children then how can one say that California or French wines with virtually no nutritional value can be good for adults?  Has a 7 year old on a sugar high ever caused a drunk driving accident?   Once you begin, where do you stop?
Are you starting to see the light?

The “if they can do it to cereal they can do it to wine” argument seems to be one that at least some folks think will have the most influence on me.

Another MNB user wrote:

I must tell you I am shocked that you or a majority of US citizens would agree with government telling companies what to sell and how to sell it. If for no other reason that the doors that would open simply by passing (another) law/regulation that will undoubtedly have loopholes included for the benefit of manufacturer’s that are big enough to have lobbyists fighting for them or pockets deep enough to ensure the new law/regulation won’t significantly impact their business…. And before you cast this aside as the paranoid ramblings of some Left Wing radical….consider how WalMart has gotten around monopoly regulations, why it took the government so long to look at Microsoft...

Your comment regarding the number of obese parents suggests not all adults know best on this issue is incredibly narrow minded and rings with extreme stereotyping…following that logic…have you ever noticed obese people also have obese pets? Maybe we should look at the ingredients in pet food and consider the cost of the more healthy, less likely to cause obesity in pets, pet food and understand that it isn’t affordable for all pet owners so government should step in…, how about parents with anorexia ….should we consider they may have malnourished children eating only low calorie, low fat, high fiber foods – and what would the government regulate here? Maybe we should look at children of parents who dress badly, have bad hair, can’t keep a job, can’t read…?

You might be surprised to know that from where I sit, it’s actually the opposite. I instruct children’s martial arts, fit class as well as for adults. We have several significantly overweight parents whose children are not overweight…in fact very much the opposite…I work with one mom who is actually trying very hard to lose weight by eating right and exercising so that her 6 year old son’s friends won’t make fun or stare at her. What’s more, she is very careful about what her son eats and also brings him to class 3 times a week to make sure he gets exercise beyond playing and gym class at school. I have another mom who is very particular about the foods her child eats because while she is not obese nor is her husband, it runs on his side of the family along with diabetes so she is starting her 7 year old down the right path now. Another parent has her overweight daughter in class, while the mom and dad are not obese they have made poor food choices for their child or simply allowed her to over eat and under exercise. These are just a few examples…our school has over 100 students at this facility and we have schools all over the US. Traveling to Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas to participate in national tournaments, I look around and see families very much like the ones at our school so I don’t believe this is an anomaly.

While I believe manufacturer’s have an obligation to provide accurate nutritional information and ingredients, I believe it’s our right to choose, as parents, what is appropriate for our children. It’s not any different than a toy company generating (through advertising, supply vs demand tactics, etc) the “must have toy” of the season that parents find hard to get and will pay almost anything to have wrapped and given to their child….(I paid $75 for 3  Zhu Zhu pets that would have cost $7-9 each prior to the holiday season) only to find out it breaks easy, is not really an ‘attention keeper’ to children under or over a certain age, isn’t really much without the “accessory kit”, has had to cut the child’s hair to remove it from moving parts, put a band aid on the finger of the child who had to see what made it work, etc. Some parents will move mountains to get it while others will make other decisions. TV, Video games, movies…all the same…I choose none of these on school nights, 1 hour of video games per day on the weekend and TV/movie rated PG or less and only after dinner on Friday and Saturday. I am not the norm and my children are not perfect. Okay so maybe these toys and electronics don’t have long term health effects…but who knows? Has there been a study of the “Barney Generation”?

Still another MNB user wrote:


Look at this elitist attitude that permeates this discussion –“I know better than the ignorant unwashed (obese) masses”.  This is just insane socialistic principles slithering in under the guise of “health care”.

The basic foundation of this country working – and surviving as a democracy – is individual responsibility, individual initiative and individual potential.  We grew to be a superpower in 200 short years.  The founders called it “an experiment”.  It’s up to us to educate ourselves and respect the foundation and the constitution.  Remember, it is “life, liberty and the PURSUIT of happiness” – there are not GUARANTEES of happiness.  Just the possibility.  This includes health care.  Owning a home.  These are not rights.  These are earned. By individual initiative and effort.

C’mon! – obesity is simply caused in most cases, by the one who picks up the fork.  Sure, there are habits picked up by association with family and friends.  But no one is forcing anyone to buy the Twinkies and the KFC Double Downs.  We can go off on tangents talking about genetics and inherent tendencies, and body types.  But for the majority, obesity is simply making wrong choices, one forkful at a time, that accumulates.

Another MNB user wrote:

Wrong again!!!!! The government has no right to step in on any issue when it comes to food. If I want to feed my boys sugar 24/7 that is my right. Once again Obama and big brother trying to turn America into a socialist state. UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!

MNB user Scott A. Rickhoff wrote:

Advertising is still free speech in USA.  Congress really needs to focus on their out of control spending.  (Can’t wait until November...)

As I said, this is just a smattering of the emails. But you get the point.

Now, to be fair, there were folks who did not think that I was an insane socialist/elitist on this issue.

Four of them, to be precise.

MNB user Marge Anzalone wrote:

Agree with all your points but would also question how are the schools helping our kids learn what is the right food to eat.  Parent tell them to eat healthy and when they go to lunch their choices are limited since most of the food is unhealthy.  That is where the government can help which is to create jobs which will teach in schools what is good and bad to eat, focus on exercise and setting the example in their lunchrooms.

Another MNB user wrote:

I agree with you that Government has a place at the health table, but I think the Government is disingenuous when they only focus on food companies and have no long term solution to the problem of  tobacco.  While obesity is a terrible problem the cost of tobacco related illness is the greatest single category impacting national health.

While we are teaching children how to live a healthy life, let’s reinstate Physical Education programs as part of that  complete curriculum.  Let’s develop a complete solution and not pick and choose.

I believe government has a role to play, and should partner with food companies to develop new and better methods of producing foods that are healthy.  But I also think that they should develop and present a comprehensive plan  that delivers a healthy life style to all economic levels, one that inspires all of us to live healthier.

Another MNB user chimed in:

I am with you on this issue. There are still a lot of American’s who believe a manufacturer who tells them that their food is good for children. Unfortunately there are a lot of uneducated parents, teenage single parents etc who do not have the education nor probably will ever have it. Their children are helpless in this situation.  I would site the recent fiasco with cereal whose number one ingredient was sugar being called a Smart Choice because it had fiber.

And still another MNB user wrote:

To your point about the abundance of emails from folks who object to government involvement on food safety and regulation of food matters, consider your sources.  Your audience is hardly a representation of consumers but instead is highly skewed to food manufacturers, food industry geeks and the retailing community. Duh.   Did you seriously expect different?  Food Plant street, not Main Street.

Okay. Can we all take a deep breath, please?

Let me be as clear as I can be on this...though my version of clarity will likely not satisfy some people.

I am genuinely conflicted on this issue. I am not trying to cover my posterior, nor satisfy everybody, when I state my opinion. (If I were, I clearly have not succeeded.) I am trying to come to a reasonable conclusion as to the best approach to this issue, and I’m not there yet.

I feel strongly, and have said here many, many times, that I believe the first line of defense against childhood obesity should be parents. If we as parents do not behave responsibly, then all the regulation and volunteer efforts in the world will not matter.

I believe that it makes much more sense for companies to deal with these issues on a volunteer basis, and that market-based solutions are always preferable to government intervention.

That said...I do not believe that all regulation is bad. For example, I have absolutely no problem with all the tobacco regulations that have been put in place by state and federal governments. This country is a better place because people cannot smoke on airplanes or in restaurants, and because tobacco advertising has been curtailed. Does this infringe on smokers’ rights? Sure. But their behavior used to infringe on my rights, and my right not to inhale second-hand smoke outweighs their right to kill me. (They want to kill themselves, that’s their problem.)

That said, I have also criticized proposals suggesting that people not be allowed to smoke in their own cars if there are children present. That strikes me as being way over the line...even though it seems clear that they are behaving irresponsibly toward their children.

What I’m trying to figure out is what the food corollary is here. I’m not sure it is apples and oranges, but I’m also not sure it is apples and apples. (Apples and Twinkies, maybe?)

At the very least, it seems to me that packaging needs to be clearly marked so that if some moron wants to feed his kid sugar 100 percent of the time 24/7, at least he knows that he or she is doing so.

Do I think that companies ought not exploit kids’ weaknesses for their own gain? Sure. Do I wish that more executives did not forget that they are parents when they go to the office? Sure. Do I think that government ought to regulate these guys so that we no longer have a free market? Not so sure.

Let’s not forget - it was the CEO at Kellogg who said that everybody needs to get on board with an industry-wide approach to dealing with childhood obesity. I’m guessing he’s not a socialist.

I will say this. You can criticize me and my motives all you want. I’m fair game, and it is my picture and name up at the top of this blog. You want to call me a socialist and an elitist, go right ahead. Take your best shot.

But I believe in my heart that all I am trying to do is figure out as thoughtfully and responsibly as I can what the best and most nuanced solutions are to serious problems in a free society. The one thing I am sure of is that this is not as black-and-white as some would believe.
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