Really, grocery manufacturers? That’s your highest priority?
Think of all the things that food manufacturers could be doing to improve the nation’s health. They could reduce the amount
of salt in packaged foods to help prevent blood pressure from rising. They could make healthier foods for school lunches. And
they could use their billions of advertising dollars to encourage children (and their increasingly overweight parents) to eat
But the truth is that the food industry’s single biggest priority is preserving its ability to market junk food to young
kids. If you don’t believe me, ask the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“There is no bigger priority for the food sector,” Scott Faber, Vice President for Federal Affairs for that group, recently
. No bigger priority!
Specifically, Faber was referring to the industry’s aggressive lobbying
effort to torpedo voluntary, non-binding recommendations
to improve the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children. Requested by Congress, an
Interagency Working Group that includes officials of the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Federal Trade Commission drafted excellent, long-overdue recommendations.
Though without any regulatory or legal force, those proposed guidelines recommend that foods marketed to kids not exceed
various amounts of nutrients kids need much less of, like saturated and trans fat, added sugars, and sodium. And they
that such foods
include at least minimum amounts of things kids need more of, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Those recommendations are hardly radical. After all, several highly profitable companies, including Mars (M&Ms,
Snickers), Hershey, and Coca-Cola don’t advertise any foods, healthy or otherwise, directly to young children. And the food
industry already has its own self-regulatory program that recently adopted its own voluntary nutrition guidelines. But those
guidelines are much less protective of children’s health than what the government proposed. Indeed, industry’s guidelines
allow even vitamin-fortified sawdust to make the grade—so don’t be surprised if you see high-fiber Pine Toasties on grocery
store shelves soon.
To be sure, in the last few years government pressure and the threat of litigation has forced the food industry to do more to
address nutrition and obesity. Sodas and most junk foods are being eliminated from school vending machines. And calorie
labeling is coming soon to chain-restaurant menus and menu boards nationwide, thanks to the health care reform law.
So why, if the Interagency Working Group’s nutrition standards for foods marketed to kids would be completely voluntary, with
companies being free to respect or ignore them, why is the industry fighting them so hard? So hard, that its lobbyists say
that there truly is “no bigger priority for the food sector”?
Part of the answer has to do with the fact that the food industry is desperate to avoid any government scrutiny of the foods
that it markets to children. In the view of the industry, Cocoa Puffs, Popsicles, and fake “fruit” snacks are all perfectly
acceptable to market to the kindergarten set—even though foods like that are helping fuel an epidemic of obesity, diabetes,
and other diet-related diseases. To deflect attention from the poor nutritional quality of its products, the industry is
resorting to misleading fear-mongering, bogus economic and legal arguments, and multi-million-dollar lobbying expenditures
and campaign contributions to win its way with Congress and the Obama administration. Unfortunately, that strategy seems to
A second reason is that while voluntary, the government’s guidelines
would serve as a benchmark against which to measure industry’s practices. And that scrutiny certainly could embarrass some
Meanwhile, on a second front, the food industry has killed USDA’s proposal
to stop the tomato paste on a slice
of school pizza from counting as a serving of vegetable. Eating a high-calorie, white-flour pizza to get a vegetable won’t
slim down any waistlines or nurture healthy eating habits.
And the potato industry got both Democratic and Republican senators from potato-growing states to deep-six USDA’s proposal to
limit starchy vegetables
to two servings a week. Kids need their French fries and Tater Tots every day
don’t they?! Never mind that a recent Harvard study concluded that potatoes are a significant promoter of obesity. The only
good news here is that House Republicans wanted to force USDA to scrap its entire proposal and start the multi-year process
all over again.
First Lady Michelle Obama had the right idea. “We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the
products that you're offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to
our children,” she told the Grocery Manufacturers in a speech last year. But “tweak around the edges” is exactly what the
industry has done when it comes to reformulating foods intended for kids. And rather than rethinking its marketing practices,
the industry is digging in its heels.
Food industry executives regularly give speeches about how terribly, terribly concerned they are about childhood obesity and
helping American families eat better. To turn that platitude into reality, companies need to reconsider what their “biggest
priority” is now and should be in the years to come.