business news in context, analysis with attitude

Last week, MNB took note of a piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, available online now, which we described as "an extraordinary story about how certain kinds of food are engineered to be addictive by companies that know that their success depends on their continued and growing sales."

Michael Moss, author of the piece (which was an excerpt from a book entitled "Salt Sugar Fat: Howe The Food Giants Hooked Us"), wrote:

"The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive."

Yesterday, Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), released the following statement in response:

"Obesity is a serious problem in the United States and globally, and Michael Moss’s work misrepresents the strong commitment America’s food and beverage companies have to providing consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle.
“The food industry’s track record on health & wellbeing speaks for itself:

• Since 2002, we have introduced more than 20,000 new product choices with fewer calories, reduced fat, sodium and sugar, and more whole grains.

• Through the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, we have pledged to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the food supply by 2015.

• Working through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), we have voluntarily adopted strict advertising criteria so that 100 percent of CFBAI members’ ads seen on children’s programming now promote healthier diet choices and better-for-you products.

• We launched Facts Up Front, a landmark voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labeling system designed to help busy consumers – especially parents – make informed decisions when they shop.

• Food and beverage companies contribute more than $130 million per year in grants to nutrition and health-related programs in hundreds of communities across the United States.

• GMA’s member companies are also committed to providing children with healthier meals in schools, supporting U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recently revised nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

• Full-calorie soft drinks have been removed from schools and total calories available from beverages in schools have been cut by 90%.
“The root causes of obesity are well known.  Too many calories consumed from any source, combined with a sedentary lifestyle are the main risk factors for obesity.  As such, public policy proposals to ban, tax or restrict consumer access to certain foods or beverages will not solve the obesity problem.
“To achieve and maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, consumers must learn to balance calories consumed through food and beverages with the appropriate amount of physical activity as recommended by the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including eating a variety of foods in moderation, combined with at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity (
“GMA and its member companies strongly support First Lady Michelle Obama’s goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation.  If we are going to meet that goal, everyone – industry, government, parents, schools, communities and healthcare providers – must do their part.
“The food and beverage industry is proud of its successful track record and the role we play in helping to combat obesity both in the United States and around the world, and we look forward to continuing our ongoing commitment to help consumers live healthy and active lifestyles.”
KC's View:
I think that it is possible to find some accuracy in both the position taken by Moss and the argument made by Bailey.

I think that the mainstream food industry has much to be proud of in terms of how far it has come over the past decade or so, in terms of food composition, labeling and marketing.

But I also think it is fair to ask whether it has been pulled and pushed into these positions by changing consumer attitudes, a vigilant investigative media, and expanded scientific information that have combined to broaden the national consciousness.

Would companies have made all these moves on their own? Do they resist change much of the time, even though they known that such resistance often results in regulation, which they then complain about, even though regulation would not have been necessary if they'd gotten there first?

The truth is that companies need to be concerned about stock prices and market shares, and that sometimes these concerns run in opposition to some of the obesity/health/nutrition issues that have become so prominent.

Could they do more? Sure. Should they do more? Sure. Will they do more? Absolutely.