The Latest Obama Ally: The Food Industry

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I'm in California but fortunately was up early enough to participate in an unexpected White House conference call. This was a preview of the press conference held this afternoon to announce food company pledges to reduce the calories in their products by 1.5 trillion by 2015. As the press release (click here for PDF) explains, the 16 food company members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)

are pledging to take actions aimed at reducing 1.5 trillion product calories by the end of 2015. As an interim step to this goal, HWCF will seek to reduce calories by 1 trillion in 2012.

The energy gap? That's the 1.5 trillion excess calories that Americans consume each year on average. This number assumes that the American population consumes an excess of 100 calories a day (the kids' gap is less). This number comes from some manipulation of 100 calories x 365 days per year x 300 million Americans.

How will food companies do this?

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goals by growing and introducing lower-calorie options; changing product recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products; or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products. These changes will help Americans reduce their calorie intake, improve their overall nutrition and close the energy gap.

How will we know they will actually do this?

To assess the impact of the pledge, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) will support a rigorous, independent evaluation of how the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation's efforts to reduce calories in the marketplace affect calories consumed by children and adolescents. RWJF will publicly report its findings.

What are we to make of all this? Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt? History suggests the latter possibility. Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products. On the other hand, the RWJF evaluation sounds plenty serious, and top-notch people are involved in it. If the companies fail to do as promised, this will be evident and evident reason for regulation.

As I explained to Jane Black of the Washington Post, the White House efforts to tackle childhood obesity have been consistent and relentless. What the White House is doing is holding food companies to the fire for making kids fat. That's awkward for the companies. They don't see it as good for business.

What the White House has not been able to get are similar pledges about marketing to kids, but that—and front-of-package labeling—are clearly the next targets.

So let's give Michelle Obama a big hand for taking this on. I will be watching for the evaluation with great interest, although I hate the idea that we have to wait until 2015 to see it.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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